Protect Your Good Name

Did you know that you or your loved ones can be victims of identity theft even after death? According to CyberScout, more than two million deceased Americans become victims every year!

Why are the dead such easy targets? Well, unlike the living, the dead can’t notice they’re being victimized and they can’t take steps to stop the crimes.

Although the Social Security system has a process in place to prevent this, known as the “Death Master File”, it can take months for credit agencies to note the deaths and prevent credit issuers from issuing new credit. This lag time is irresistible to identity thieves.

It falls on the heirs, surviving spouses and executors to protect the identities of the deceased. And it is in their best interest to do so. If the executor isn’t keeping an eye on things, identity theft can go unnoticed. Fraudulent account withdrawals may not get caught or corrected and may reduce the size of an estate.

Suggestions For Safeguarding Sensitive Information

  1. Be careful writing the obit: Identity thieves scour obituaries looking for usable details such as birthdays, the deceased home address or mother’s name. Edit the info and keep the details at a minimum.
  2. Secure the wallet: Thieves are everywhere, unfortunately. Cases of hospital or emergency services personnel stealing credit cards from the deceased have occurred. Usually, a loved one won’t realize anything is missing. Cancel the deceased’s credit cards as soon as possible and check the final bill for charges that occurred after the deceased went into the hospital or passed away.
  3. Discard important documents carefully: Thieves hope heirs throw out sensitive paperwork thinking they are not needed anymore. Bank, investment account and credit card statements and anything with a Social Security number or passwords should be shredded with a paper shredder.
  4. Relocate the wake: If you have a wake, memorial service or reception – hold it at a facility instead of in a home, especially not the home of the deceased. Thieves, employees working for caterers, florists or cleaning companies have been known to show up and steal sensitive information, credit cards and small valuables. And remember the old tip about making sure someone stays at the home of the deceased during the wake and burial to deter potential opportunistic burglars.
  5. Don’t overshare: Facebook and other social media forums are a treasure for identity thieves. Details such as family or maiden names, facts, dates and personal information is often posted by well-meaning family or friends. The recommended course of action is to log onto each of these accounts and delete them (if you have a password or access). Facebook and other sites now allow people to designate a person that can delete accounts in just those situations. If you don’t have the password, you can notify the social media site and they can shut down the site or memorialize it accordingly.
  6. Redirect mail: Have the post office hold mail or forward all mail to the estate’s executor. This is not necessary if the spouse or some other trusted loved one still resides at the deceased address or if the deceased has a P.O. Box or locking mailbox. Mail with account and sensitive information will likely continue to arrive after death.
  7. Get the word out: Be sure to get certified copies of death certificates as soon as possible. Funeral homes and mortuaries usually supply a certain number of them but you’ll want to have many more on hand. Banks, the IRS, Social Security, Medicare, DMV and tax authority in the deceased’s state should be notified ASAP. They will each require a certified copy of the death certificate. Check with each agency to see what, if any, supporting documentation they require. Prompt notification of these agencies will help deter identity thieves. It should prevent thieves from having duplicate documents issued in the deceased’s name. Banks, investment companies, credit unions, credit card issuers, insurance companies, lenders and financial advisors will need to be notified and will require death certificates to close accounts.
  8. Place a “deceased alert” with the three major credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion can essentially put a security freeze on the deceased’s file. This should prevent any new credit accounts from being opened in the deceased’s name. Certified copies of the death certificate and a brief letter identifying the deceased by full name, Social Security number and last five years of addresses, date of birth and date of death are needed to comply with the agencies requirements.

If after taking the steps above, you still think identity theft is occurring, you should call the credit reporting agencies to confirm that a death alert has been placed on the accounts. And you or the executor should call the Social Security Administration to ask if the deceased’s social security number has been added to the Death Master File. If it hasn’t let them know that you suspect identity theft is occurring and whether it can be expedited.

Tip: There are many practical guides available on the market for what to do before and after someone dies. Create a checklist of things to do in the event of a loved one’s death and keep it with your will or trust documents so your heirs or executor will know what steps they need to take.