Matt and Roya Pilcher were among the millions of Americans who slogged dutifully through the process of filing their taxes in 2011. But that year they joined countless other bereaved parents in experiencing pain far beyond the inconvenience of paperwork. Not only had they lost their daughter Ava; the IRS subsequently informed them their claim had been denied because someone else had already claimed Ava – and the accompanying dependent tax credit – as their own. Now the Pilchers were burdened with proving to the IRS that their dead daughter was, in fact, their dead child.
“All we really have is her memory and her name. For someone to try to steal that, to appropriate that for themselves – it’s beyond reprehensible,” says Matt Pilcher.
How frequently bereaved parents face this form of secondary victimization is unknown, but identity theft presents a risk for all families who have experienced the death of a child. At greatest risk are those who have lost a dependent child, ages 0 to 18, because of the financial gain associated with the tax credit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates as many as 40,000 children, between the ages of 0 to 18, die each year. In April of this year, parents who had lost their two-month old son, Nathan, more than 44 years ago discovered that his identity was stolen by a man who used it to escape from a halfway house in the mid-1990’s. And these are just two examples of this unthinkable crime.
While the scope of thefts have diminished in recent years, in May, IRS Treasury Inspector General Russell George testified before the House Ways and Means Committee that in cases of identity theft, innocent taxpayers often do not learn they are victims until their own filings are rejected, as was the case for the Pilchers. George attributed “significant financial and emotional hardships” to victims of this experience.
The Pilchers’ suffering did not end with the theft of their daughter’s identity nor the indignity of proving her loss. “One aspect of this ordeal that I found to be particularly maddening is that the IRS protects those individuals who steal the SSNs of deceased children, shielding them from both civil liability and criminal prosecution…When I wrote the IRS in 2011, providing proof that Ava was our daughter, and asking for copies of any returns that claimed Ava’s SSN… the IRS refused, stating that doing so would violate the privacy of those individual(s) who stole her SSN and filed the fraudulent return,” shared Mr. Pilcher.
Taking simple measures to protect families, and those they recently lost, from identity theft would appear to be a basic proactive step to protect not only the affected families, but also millions of hardworking taxpaying Americans. We have a responsibility, as a nation, to ensure the institutions established to serve our citizens and our national interests do not enable predators to victimize families who have experienced one of life’s most painful tragedies.