How to Protect the Identity of Your Late Loved Ones

Identity thieves have found a new opportunity. They steal the identities of the dead, often committing widespread fraud before being caught (if they are ever caught). Here's how to protect the identity of your late loved ones.

It may be stating the obvious, but criminals have no shame. They will steal from the rich and the poor. They will steal from the young and the old. They’ll even steal from the dead.

While you are in the throes of mourning a loved one, criminals are jumping into action to steal their identities and more. Not even death can protect the identity of your loved ones.

Identity thieves know what to look for, and they know how to take advantage of your available information. They troll obituaries to find dates of birth, home addresses, and other personal information that they use to steal the Social Security number, tax refunds, credit card numbers, and more. They are using that information while you are planning a funeral and going through the grieving process.

The term commonly used for this is “ghosting.” (That term is also used on dating apps, but that’s a different story.)

First Steps to Protect the Identity of the Deceased

There are several proactive steps you can take to protect the identity of your deceased loved one.

Step number one is to avoid giving out too much personal information in the obituary. Identity thieves know how to use seemingly innocuous details to gain access. You can provide the person’s age but not their date of birth. Name their parents but don’t reveal the mother’s maiden name. Thieves can use even middle names and the names of surviving relatives to commit identity fraud. Reveal the city they lived in but not the home address, since an old ploy is to rob someone’s home during the funeral.

In addition, obtain many original copies of the death certificates; often, a dozen or more are needed. Most government agencies and financial institutions won’t accept photocopies. You will probably need a certified copy for each bank, insurance company, brokerage, and government agency that you contact. The cost in New Jersey is $25 for the first copy and $2 for each additional one ordered simultaneously. It makes sense to order a few more than you think you’ll need.

Who Do You Notify When Someone Dies?

Social Security Administration and the IRS

Send original copies of the death certificate to the Social Security Administration and the IRS as soon as possible to inform them of the death. ID Analytics, a fraud solutions company, says that fraud involving the Social Security numbers of the deceased is nine times greater than the living.

Also, don’t think you can eke out an extra Social Security payment by delaying when you notify the agency. It will “claw back” any benefits that are not legitimate. A person needs to live an entire month to qualify for payment. For example, if someone dies at any time in April, they are not entitled to the April payment sent out in May.

In most cases, a funeral director will report a death to Social Security, but you should ensure this is done and doesn’t slip through the cracks. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the deceased’s executor or next of kin to notify the Social Security Administration. It can then “lock” the Social Security number of the dead to prevent a hacker from changing the deceased’s address or bank account information.

Thieves like to change the deceased’s address to re-route mail. Doing so helps them gain access to account numbers, investment statements, checks, and more.

Credit Bureaus

Send death certificates to the three major credit agencies: TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. Advise them to put a “deceased alert” on the individual’s credit report. That will stop crooks from opening new credit card accounts. When contacting these companies, identify yourself as the executor or representative of the deceased and provide them with all relevant information: their full name and address, Social Security number, date of birth, and date of death. Also, provide all your contact information.

You should also request credit reports from the three credit agencies to ensure no new accounts have been opened before putting the “deceased alert” into place. It’s also advisable to get updated credit reports six months later to make a final check.

Financial Institutions

Banks, credit card companies, mortgage companies, insurance agents, and stockbrokers must also receive death certificates. Make sure they mark the accounts as “Closed. The account holder is deceased.” If any accounts were jointly held, request the account name be changed to reflect only the surviving person’s name.

Additional Suggestions to Help Protect the Identity of the Deceased

  • Keep good records. Have a notebook to track all communications, with names, dates, and other pertinent info.
  • Use “certified, return receipt requested” for items sent through the U.S. Postal Service.
  • Open new accounts in the name of the estate or trust and transfer the assets in. This reduces the chance of fraud or theft, even if someone does steal the deceased’s account numbers.
  • Cancel the driver’s license or state ID card of the deceased.
  • Notify the Veteran’s Administration, professional organizations, doctors, and other professional service providers.
  • Make sure the computers and phones of the deceased have strong password protections.
  • Limit the number of people who have access to all the records, accounts, and information you are trying to protect. It’s not uncommon for family members to steal the identities of loved ones.
  • Debt collectors may continue to hound you, but you have the right to tell them to stop contacting you.
  • The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) is a good resource if you run into theft problems.

In addition to thieves, some unscrupulous real estate agents may contact you to list the deceased’s home for sale. A vulture like that is probably not the type of agent who has your best interests in mind.

The good news is that most financial assets are legally protected or insured, so your losses are limited. But there are exceptions, and you can still suffer some losses that cannot be recovered, and your time, effort, and stress spent trying to unwind fraud can be considerable.

The bottom line is that even if the stolen information does not cost you much money, the thieves can leave you emotionally vulnerable when you are already suffering.

You may not believe in ghosts, but ghosting is real, and it can be scary!

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