TAMPA — Retired nurse Jacqueline Midulla lost her $1,032 Social Security payment to a criminal.
No one took her purse. No one stole her mail.
In a new twist on identity theft, someone convinced the Social Security Administration this summer that Midulla had a new bank account number. Her payment went onto a thief's reloadable debit card and vanished before anyone had a clue.
"You think, 'This will never happen to me,' " she said Wednesday. "Not only did they take my Social Security check that month, they also filed a tax return and got my free credit report, apparently."
Fifty times a day, Social Security's Office of the Inspector General gets a report of an unauthorized change or attempted change to a direct deposit routing number, often resulting in a missed payment.
That's what Inspector General Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr. told members of Congress this month, referring to a "recent rash" of fraudulent activity, which he described as a "serious issue facing SSA."
The agency began tracking potential fraud reports in October and has logged 19,000 of them, O'Carroll said in a written statement Sept. 12 to a House subcommittee on Social Security.
That doesn't mean there are 19,000 victims, cautioned Jonathan L. Lasher, assistant inspector general for external relations. Innocent error by the beneficiary, bank or Social Security Administration is sometimes to blame. One small study of 33 cases last fall found five attributable to input mistakes.
But most victims had given out, or lost, their personal information to identity scammers.
How did that translate to altered routing numbers?
Neither Lasher nor a Social Security spokesman would explain. The government doesn't want to provide a road map to help crooks steal from the elderly and the disabled. But O'Carroll's statement described a need for better identity verification procedures in field offices, call centers and at financial institutions.
He focused on institutions that issue prepaid debit cards.
People who receive Social Security benefits sometimes choose to have the money deposited on those reloadable cards, purchased at retailers or online.
O'Carroll called the cards "particularly tempting tools for benefit thieves."
That's a lesson already learned by the Internal Revenue Service. Thieves often use prepaid debit cards to collect fraudulent tax refunds, a skill that cost the Treasury an estimated $468 million in Tampa alone last year.
John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Tampa office, fears that Social Security check diversion could be the next wave of government fraud, he said Wednesday.
He became aware of the practice in recent months. Along with providing presidential protection, the Secret Service has a role in safeguarding America's financial system, which is why his agency participates in tax refund fraud investigations.
"What irks me the most about Social Security benefits is that people are on a fixed income and they depend on that check coming in," he said. "Your tax refund, you know it's coming, but you don't depend on it month by month. It's the elderly now being targeted. It's tragic."
The use of prepaid debit cards to steal Social Security benefits is a scheme with terrible timing. March 1 is the deadline for people who get paper Treasury checks to convert to electronic deposits. (Waivers are offered to retirees who were 90 or older on May 1, 2011.)
Ninety-four percent of Social Security beneficiaries already get paid electronically, the agency's Assistant Deputy Commissioner Theresa Gruber told Congress.
But if people don't have bank accounts, "we tell them about the option of the Treasury's Direct Express card," she said.
It's a prepaid debit card.
Nurse Midulla, 68, and her husband, Joseph, 73, heard about those cards when they set out to solve the riddle of her missing Social Security deposit in June.
They reported it to the Social Security Administration. The Treasury got involved.
In late June, Mrs. Midulla received a letter at her Tampa home from the Treasury, explaining that the money had been credited to a Bancorp.com debit card. The account number wasn't familiar to her.
The Bancorp Inc.'s website describes the company as one of top five issuers of prepaid cards.
Suddenly, things made sense: Mrs. Midulla had received a confusing letter a month earlier from Social Security, saying that her deposit would be sent to "the financial institution you selected; or the new account you selected at the same financial institution."
Someone had used her identity information.
"Your mind goes crazy as to how this could have happened," she said.
Who had her numbers? Who didn't: After breast cancer, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, reconstruction, two heart attacks, esophageal and stomach ulcers, she had lost count of personal details relinquished. She underwent procedures at an endoscopy center known to have suffered a records breach.
It leaves her indignant that unscrupulous peddlers of identities would draw suspicion to the profession she loved. Her mind settles on the temporary workers who staff medical offices.
She worked as an ER and ICU nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital, Memorial Hospital and Tampa General, she said. At times, she was a case management nurse with access to patient identification information.
"Not once in a million years would it enter my mind that I could take this person's date of birth and Social Security number and get a credit card or file a tax return," she said. "When you're not raised that way, you don't think in that manner."
About 10 days after she and her husband complained to Social Security, the Treasury issued a new payment.
Did it come, perhaps, the old-fashioned way, by check? No chance.
But this time, the money landed in the right account.
Next up: Getting to the bottom of the couples' hijacked tax refund.
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.