Observer Pulitzer winner Bob Dennis’ accounts hacked amid his last rites

After the death of her father last month, Darby Dennis discovered fraudsters have come up with a high-tech version of robbing an empty home while everyone is at the funeral.

Days after the service, Dennis was checking her father’s Wells Fargo accounts and discovered an unknown person had changed the address, email and phone number for all of his bank accounts. She quickly checked with a teller and was sent to the bank’s fraud division.

“It was pretty frightening to think that could happen while we were at the funeral,” said Dennis, whose father, Bob Dennis, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning Observer reporter.

This kind of scam, unfortunately, isn’t new to the banking industry, said Doug Johnson, senior vice president for payment and cybersecurity policy at the American Bankers Association.

“It’s been an ongoing and particuarly nasty type of identity theft,” he said. “To sit there and troll through the papers and the obituaries to find out which addresses to change has been going on even before electronic banking.”

Banks generally take steps to verify address changes are legitimate, Johnson said. Typically, they send written or electronic communications to the customer to confirm the change, he said.

Consumers should monitor their accounts to keep an eye out for unauthorized activity, Johnson said, noting banks will cover losses from unathorized transactions.

“Your consumer did exactly the right thing,” Johnson said. “She was smart enough to monitor transactions and monitor activity. Because of that, she caught it before the bank could actually catch it. Usually, it’s the bank that catches it first.”

Wells Fargo spokesman Josh Dunn said the bank couldn’t comment on individual customer accounts. “Wells Fargo customers are protected from any fraudulent activity regarding their accounts as long as they report it to us in a timely manner,” bank spokesman Josh Dunn said.

A 2012 study by ID Analytics, a consumer risk management firm, found that the identities of nearly 2.5 million deceased Americans are used improperly to apply for credit services every year. Nearly 800,000 were intentionally targeted by fraudsters, while in about 1.6 million cases scammers unknowingly chose a victim who was deceased, the study found.

“It is one of those things, unfortunately, that does happen,” said Matt Davis, a victim adviser with the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps ID theft victims and educates the public about the issue.

Studies suggest that 1 in 5 Americans will deal with some kind of identity fraud in their lifetime, Davis said. “It is a problem that is not going away,” he said.

Dennis, who lives in the Houston area, said she was lucky to have checked the accounts when she did. Since she didn’t have her father’s phone, she didn’t receive any alerts about the changes if they were sent to him. Dennis worked with Wells Fargo to close the accounts, but it took hours, she said.

Even before this incident, Dennis said she has careful to closely monitor her banking accounts.

“If I hadn’t been looking,” she said, “it could have been a tragedy.”