Each year, millions of Americans fall victim to identity fraud. But did you know that you or your loved ones can be victims of identity theft even after death?
Why are the dead such easy and appealing targets to scammers? Well, unlike the living, the dead can’t notice they’re being victimized and thus 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 as fraudulent account withdrawals may not get caught or corrected and can reduce the size of an estate. But how can you prevent an identity from being stolen?
8 Tips for Preventing Identity Theft
Here are eight simple steps you can take to protect your deceased loved one’s personal information from scammers and identity fraud.
1. Be careful writing the obituary
Identity thieves scour obituaries looking for usable details such as birthdays, home addresses or mother’s surname. Edit the information that will be published and keep the details at a minimum. If anyone needs or wants specific details, they can always reach out directly to you.
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 records, investment accounts, credit card statements and anything with a Social Security number or passwords should be shredded with a paper shredder.
If you’re unsure whether the information is sensitive or not, it’s best to err on the side of caution and shred the document.
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. That’s not to say that everyone is a bad guy in disguise, but it’s better to be safe than sorry in these situations.
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
Mail with account and sensitive information will likely continue to arrive after death and could be easily stolen from a mailbox. Have the post office hold mail or forward all mail to the estate’s executor.
Note: This step is not necessary if the surviving 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.
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 and help 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.