TAMPA - Identity theft is an epidemic in Tampa Bay.
Most of us take the right steps to protect our personal information, but you may not realize the information of your deceased loved ones is probably already online.
Donna Ruth of Spring Hill has been a victim of identity theft for years. She's not sure how the thief got her social security number, but she says they have filed false tax returns in her name for several years. It's led to a nightmare of red tape.
"Hundreds of hours of phone calls and transfers, and unfortunately, it's happened again this year," Ruth said.
Ruth says she's even more careful with her personal information now. She couldn't believe it when we showed her a website posting the social security numbers of her deceased family members.
"I found my aunt who passed away in New Jersey. It's just totally unbelievable," Ruth said.
The information was on www.death-record.com . Death record websites are a big business, and it's all legal. The websites pay the Social Security Administration for the "Death Master File." Costs for the file can vary depending on what records are requested, but it typically costs approximately $7,200.
The Death Master File is considered public record, and includes names, dates, and social security numbers of 89 million deceased Americans.
Death record websites do serve a legitimate purpose. Credit card companies, insurance agencies, and other businesses use these records to prove customers are who they claim to be. Local and state government agencies use them as well.
Death-Record.com is operated by FindTheBest. In an e-mailed response, a representative of FindTheBest claims their website actually helps prevent identity theft.
"Assuming the identity of a dead person has long been a favorite ploy of criminals… Sometimes they get away with it. More often, however, they are foiled by the Death Master file," said Christina Chang of FindTheBest.
The concern is that an identity thief could easily access this information as well. The IRS says these websites are known to criminals, and are just one means to accessing others' personal information. The agency says they are working to inform the public about the ways personal information could be exposed.
"The IRS is taking active steps to identify those websites, and we're working with our external stakeholders to try and create more of an alertness about this," said assistant special agent Ismael Nevarez Jr.
The IRS recommends people shred their documents, avoid giving out personal information unless it's to a trusted source, and monitor accounts for unusual activity. Anyone who believes they may be a victim of identity theft should contact their local IRS office.
Donna Ruth believes websites shouldn't be allowed to post social security numbers of the deceased.
"It's appalling. Certainly, there should be some sort of protective measures, not only to protect the living, but to protect the dead," Ruth said.
Under pressure from lawmakers, several websites have stopped posting social security numbers of the dead. But many websites continue the practice.
For more information on recognizing and reporting identity theft, visit