MONROE, GA. - A little less than a year after losing her seven year old daughter, a Monroe woman will have to prove to the government the child was hers. An identity thief claimed the child as a dependent on their tax return, likely collecting a refund through a fake address and debit card that won't be traced. Now in addition to their grief, the Winstanleys will have to go through a process that may not end until the fall.
"It hurts, knowing she's been gone almost a year now, I miss her every day," Melanie Winstanley said. "And to know we now have to jump through these hoops is painful."
Laura Winstanley was born with Mitochondrial Disease, which stopped her from ever being able to walk or talk. But her mother said her condition never stopped her from being an active member of the family.
"We made her a part of our lives, and she experienced everything we did," said Winstanley. "She had a joy about her and everybody that saw her just fell in love with her because she was just so full of life."
A family friend of the Winstanleys also had their deceased daughter's identity stolen for tax purposes this year. Tax expert and Enrolled Agent Bill Nemeth said it's not at all unusual to see it happen. Identity thieves can get social security numbers from death certificates, and then claim thousands of dollars in deductions.
"It's been very very common since the advent of electronic filing, when people could get money quicker," Nemeth said.
He said the process for the Winstanleys will likely continue into September or October before it's resolved. Melanie said she will use the patience she learned in caring for her daughter to get through it.
"I'm trying to give grace to [the identity thief] because I don't know what they've been through, I don't know what experiences behind them caused them to do this," Winstanley said. "I want them to be held accountable for what they have done, but I'm trying not to be angry with them."