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  • Writer's pictureRobert Ryerson

What You Can Do to Prevent Identity Theft of Deceased Loved Ones

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

The Federal Trade Commission received 1.4 million complaints for identity theft in 2020; this represented a 113 percent increase from the year prior, due in large part to fraudsters taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional statistics show that one in 15 Americans--and one in four adults age 55 years and older--have been victims of identity theft.

Individuals can take a range of precautions to protect themselves against identity theft. Importantly, people also need to be wary of identity theft involving deceased family members.

Identity fraud involving deceased people can occur in a variety of ways. Some fraudsters deliberately target individuals who they know have recently passed away, while others might make up a Social Security number that, by chance, matches that of a recently deceased person.

Fraudsters can also glean personal information through obituaries or from funeral homes or hospitals. They use this information to illegally purchase a deceased person's Social Security number online, after which they can apply for loans or open credit card accounts in that person’s name. This type of scam is known as ghosting.

More than 2 million deceased Americans are targeted in ghosting scams every year. Fortunately, surviving family members cannot be held to account for charges incurred through these scams. Nevertheless, they can cause anguish and emotional distress in already difficult times. Below are four steps individuals can take to protect the identity of their loved ones.

1. Forward Mail

It is typically the responsibility of the executor of the deceased person's estate to ensure that the person is not subject to postmortem identity theft. One of the first steps the executor should take is to forward the deceased person's mail to their own address. This can be done at a local post office and helps to ensure that personal information stays out of the wrong hands.

Once this is done, all relevant documents should be stored in a secure place. The executor should also be aware of who else has access to these documents. According to the fraud prevention firm ID Analytics, almost 800,000 deceased Americans are deliberately targeted by fraudsters every year, and the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) has even reported that family members and close friends have been known to use a deceased person's identity for their own personal gain. Executors should be wary of anyone who asks too many questions.

2. Write Strategic Obituaries

The most common way in which thieves obtain a deceased person's personal information is through obituaries. Because these short biographies are published in newspapers and can also appear on websites for extended periods, they are easily accessible for individuals to use with malicious intent. While obituaries can honor the deceased and even help in the grieving process for surviving friends and family members, they should leave out the following key details: date of birth, birthplace, middle name, home address, and mother's maiden name. Leaving out the address is particularly important, as criminals have been known to target the residences of individuals who have recently passed.

Fraudsters can use the aforementioned information to create an accurate but fraudulent profile of someone who is deceased. Financial institutions might take several months to discover a compromised or fraudulent account, especially if the account is in good standing. Executors and other family members of the deceased should also be cautious of fraudsters posing as representatives of government agencies or financial institutions to glean additional personal information.

Social media is another avenue through which thieves can glean this information. It's important that the executor of the estate notify all relevant social media platforms to lock and/or close the deceased person's account.

3. Check for Suspicious Activity

Identity theft involving deceased individuals can last months or even years if the executor is not routinely checking their banking and credit statements. Suspicious activity should be reported to the police. Credit reports should also be reviewed and closed.

For additional protection, ask that reports be flagged with this alert: "Deceased. Do not issue credit. If an application is made for credit, notify the following person(s) immediately."

4. Send Copies of the Death Certificate to Relevant Parties

Securing a death certificate is a critical step in protecting the identity of a deceased family member. According to the ITRC, executors should order at least a dozen copies of this document to send to relevant businesses and government agencies, as photocopies usually won't suffice. Death certificates should first be sent to the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration. The IRS will then provide details on how to file the deceased person's final tax return, while the SSA can lock the deceased person's Social Security number to prevent fraudsters from rerouting Social Security benefits.

The other death certificate copies should be sent to each of the three most well-known credit reporting agencies--Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian--as well as to all relevant financial institutions. These might include mortgage companies, stock brokers, banks, and credit card companies.

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