April 9, 2021

Tombstone identity fraud

As the regulations for identity theft become tighter, fraudsters find new ways of committing crimes, always looking for an opportunity that opens up to them.

# Insights

How can you prevent identity theft after death?

Identity theft is one of the most prevalent crimes as it is relatively cheap and easy to obtain. Criminals use one of two approaches to committing identity fraud: creating a new fictitious record or stealing personal information from another person (living or deceased). In this blog, we will be discussing the latter of the two, specifically, the use of a stolen deceased identity.

The death of a loved one is a tragic time and with it comes the added worry of identity theft. In recent times, identity theft of the deceased, also known as “tombstone theft” or “ghosting”, has been a rising concern. Ghosting identity theft occurs when a deceased individual’s personally identifiable information is stolen to commit fraudulent acts such as account takeover, taxpayer ID theft and tax refund fraud, medical ID theft, driver’s license ID theft, or applying for new credit cards and loans, and even to secure employment, utility services or telecommunications services

National Identity Crime and Misuse Measurement Framework Pilot run by the Australian Attorney-General Department estimates the economic impact crimes involving identity theft in Australia is likely to exceed $1.6 billion dollars per year. It can take up to six months before government organisations and institutions are updated on the death of an individual, providing thieves ample opportunity to exploit this time lag to acquire and use the deceased’s identity. To prevent the reputational and financial costs that arise from tombstone theft, institutions and organisations can apply measures to prevent the use of stolen deceased’s identity from occurring.

Australian Death Check

Data Zoo can now help protect companies from identity theft cases based on deceased individual data. We are an approved Data Service Broker for the Australian Death Check – a new data cleansing service that is the only official source of national death data for Australia. The Australia Death Check service, administered by the Queensland Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, has access to more than 3 million Australian death records, which are updated daily. It often takes up to six months for organisations to be notified of a death, and fraudsters use this gap to apply online for credit cards, apply for loans and apply for mobile phones or other services. The identity fraudsters may obtain a deceased person’s required details from various sources, including a funeral announcement published in a newspaper.

But first; it is important to understand how the identity of a deceased person can be obtained…

Acquisition of fraudulent identity

As the regulations for identity theft become tighter, fraudsters find new ways of committing crimes, always looking for an opportunity that opens up to them. The relative ease and low cost of ghosting makes this one of the most prevalent types of fraud.  Criminals can obtain Personal Identifying Information (PII) from a wide range of source documents such as bank statements or utility bills that are discarded into the rubbish, from malicious hacking of databases containing PII (data breaches), simply be made up (i.e. identity fabrication), or where criminals take over the identities of people who are deceased (known as ‘Tombstone Fraud’).

Even publishing a funeral announcement in a newspaper or open forum needs to be approached with caution as this is a public platform where thieves can gather information. The details mentioned on a deceased’s tomb can be used against them, making it an absolute necessity for organisations to conduct a death check to avoid criminal actions being conducted in the name of the dead. Document Verification Service (DVS) have announced their real time updated deceased data for all states and territories of Australia.

Registries of births, deaths and marriages (RBDM)

When a birth, death, or marriage occurs in Australia, the event and the parties involved are registered with the relevant RBDM of all the states and territories. The details are recorded on the appropriate certificate. These certificates are relied upon as documentary evidence of both the commencement of identity (i.e. birth certificates) and of changes to identity details over time (i.e. marriage and change of name certificates) as well as the end of an identity (death of the person). But most government agencies and private sector organisations do not have arrangements in place to notify the relevant RBDM when they detect a certificate that is suspected to be fraudulent. Therefore, it is likely that RBDMs are not notified of the majority of incidents involving fraudulent versions of their certificates.


Fraud Indicator as part of the Customer Onboarding Process

Organised crime rings are known to use deceased records to fraudulently open credit card accounts, apply for loans, apply for mobile phones, and collect tax returns. Financial institutions, telecommunication companies, and government agencies can use deceased checks at account opening stage to verify and ensure they are not dealing with a potential fraudster who might be committing tombstone fraud.

Improve Communications for Charities and All Marketing Services

Organisations involved in marketing activities can prevent the distress caused to families of the deceased when communications are addressed to the late relative, by checking their databases against the national deaths register. Any organisation that is looking to send information to its customers and members can utilise this service including financial institutions, superannuation funds, and charitable organisations.

Account Monitoring

Banking, superannuation, and financial services industries can utilise the death checks service as part of ongoing account monitoring to ensure customer and member details are up-to-date. Use cases include superannuation funds or financial institutions verifying an individual is deceased if a person calls to close the deceased’s account. Institutions that charge “fees for no service” can use this service to ensure no fees are charged to the deceased; a high-profile use case of this “fees for no service” to customers, including the deceased, emerged as one of the biggest scandals from the Australian Royal Commission into misconduct in the banking, superannuation, and financial services industry.

Many of the methodologies used by criminals to commit identity theft are widely available from open sources. Some of these methodologies seek to exploit vulnerabilities in Australia’s identity infrastructure that have been known for more than 15 years. In most cases, tombstone fraud could be prevented through checks against death records whenever an application for an identity credential is lodged. DVS has launched real-time systems across Australia to make these checks more widely available that is updated daily being the most concise and accurate information to confirm the authenticity of someone’s death. Data Zoo is a key player in the Australian market providing death checks for preventing tombstone fraud – an approved Data Service Broker for the Australian Death Check.

The benefits of conducting an Australian Death Check with Data Zoo

The benefits of conducting an Australian Death Check with Data Zoo

Data Zoo makes it easy to onboard and verify customers quickly

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