Police: ID fraud victims tied to Ancestry.com

by: Kerry Kavanaugh Updated:

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Channel 2 Action News has learned 5,700 victims in a massive identity theft ring were legally mined off the popular website Ancestry.com.

"The citizens should not have access to Social Security numbers and dates of birth whether they're dead or alive, period," Detective Fran Foster with the Duluth Police Department said.

Foster said he began working the case last April after receiving a report for a couple of stolen checks.

Investigators first believed there were hundreds of victims. Now, they know there are nearly 10,000.

The state has since closed the case.

Channel 2's Kerry Kavanaugh made an open records request to see the evidence and discovered the connection to Ancestry.com.

Foster showed Kavanaugh several handwritten lists of names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers of 5,700 people, all deceased.

Foster said their key player in theft ring, Annette Ford, 47, had an account on Ancestry.com.

Police believe Ford sold some of the information and used some in fraudulent tax returns. She has since pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy and identity fraud.

"The IRS and the government, it takes about 10-11 months for them to catch up to an actual dead person," Foster said.

But he said the information was appearing on the site within 10 days.

Kavanaugh reached out to Ancestry.com and discovered the website has recently made a major change.

Spokesperson Heather Erickson sent statement saying: "It's unfortunate to hear of this situation. Ancestry.com is very thoughtful when choosing what public records it hosts to ensure that only those with significant family history value are available for our members to search.

"We, as well as other genealogical websites, provide members with access to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) as it is a key record collection to help further family history research and it provides unique information about specific ancestors. The SSDI is made public by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and contains only records of deaths that were reported to the Social Security Administration or the Railroad Retirement Board. When narrowing down which of the hundreds of John Smith's is your ancestor, records like the Social Security Death Index are very important in helping match you to the correct person in your family tree.

"As there has been sensitivity around this record collection, we made a purposeful decision last year to not display Social Security numbers of any person that has passed away in the last 10 years. Additionally, we have placed the Social Security Death Index behind our paid wall to ensure that only dedicated family history researchers who have paid for an Ancestry.com subscription can access to this information."

Erickson said the site made the change in November 2011.

For Foster, the move is too little too late.

"I fault a lot of people, including our government for not protecting people from identity fraud," Foster said.

Foster said the IRS had a lot of red flags on this case. She says Ford had a connection to a Buford business where they say she routed hundreds of IRS checks.

"They kept coming and they're still coming," Foster said.

Foster said the owner of the business reached out to several agencies, but got little response.

"They haven't red-flagged that address. They haven't red-flagged anything to say,'This is fraud, we know it's fraud, we're not going to send anything else to this address,'" Foster said.

Foster said she has identified several of Ford's accomplices, but only one other, Derrick Pickett, 38, is serving time for it.

Foster said to her knowledge, the IRS has not compensated any of the victims who lost money because fraudulent returns were filed in their names.

As Channel 2 Action News first reported last October, police believe another source of victims was the "super bills" from a local hospital.

They said they discovered the personal information of 3,800 patients at Emory Healthcare's Orthopedic Clinic had been compromised.

Police said Ford also had a connection to a former Emory employee.