Imposter swoops in after husband dies

Theresa Lewis’ husband died in 2010. In early 2011, an imposter beat her to her tax filing with a fake return and a likely windfall.
Theresa Lewis’ husband died in 2010. In early 2011, an imposter beat her to her tax filing with a fake return and a likely windfall.
Published Apr. 22, 2012

TAMPA — During the worst time of her life, Theresa Lewis remembered to call the credit bureaus.

She had heard about crooks using dead people's Social Security numbers and didn't want them stealing her late husband's identity.

But even a person that conscientious can be a victim.

Early last year, someone with a computer and an Internet connection stole the identity of Geoffrey Lewis, a 41-year-old business systems analyst and drummer who died of brain cancer on Sept. 1, 2010.

And that person beat Theresa Lewis to her tax filing, likely pocketing thousands with a fake return.

This was before the headlines and congressional hearings. Theresa Lewis, 48, had never heard about tax fraud. Her accountant explained how it worked.

"I was mad," she said, "mad that people had the audacity to do this."

Authorities estimate she's one of at least half a million people victimized by tax fraud since 2008.

Many of them had recently lost loved ones. The federal government publishes information about deceased people, including their Social Security numbers.

It makes criminals' jobs easier, and it seems especially cruel. Tampa police were horrified to learn that the widow of slain Tampa police Officer David Curtis was a victim of tax fraud last year.

"I think there's a special place for people who do this," Lewis said.

She met Geoffrey more than two decades ago at the University of South Florida. He was a student. She worked in the bookstore.

In recent years, they lived in St. Petersburg and commuted to Tampa together. She would drop him off at the Sykes building in downtown Tampa before driving to USF for work.

Many nights, they would eat out. Their favorites were Carrabba's and Outback.

"When you're young, why waste your time cooking?" she says. "Use that time to sit down together and talk."

On Halloween 2009, Geoffrey felt dizzy. He saw a flash of light and noticed an odd smell. The next month, an MRI showed a tumor on his hypothalamus. A doctor gave him two months to live.

He made it to nearly 10.

Lewis is thankful she doesn't count on a tax return each year. She's accustomed to owing the IRS come tax time.

Though she had to wait about two hours on the phone to report the fraud, she found that the IRS cleared the matter quickly. She suspects it's because she owed the government $2,400.

The agency cashed her check after she sent her husband's death certificate. She never reported it to police.

"What can they do about it?" she said.