Preventing identity theft after death can save your family thousands of dollars from crooks seeking personal financial gain. Stealing the deceased identity is so easy, which is made even easier by public records.
A reform in federal law in the 1990s created a loophole that allows fraudsters to obtain the Social Security information of recently dead people.
Each year they use the identities of million deceased Americans to apply for loans fraudulently, open credit card accounts, get a cellphone, and other services. When an identity thief happens, the survivors suffer both financial and emotional burden.
The best way to end an identity thief is to prevent them from stealing from your deceased loved ones. If you take precautionary steps before identity thieves take action, they will leave you and prey on easier victims. That’s the best way to ensure your loved one’s estate is left to the family, and any good causes it is intended.
WHAT IS IDENTITY THEFT?
Identity theft is also called identity fraud; it occurs when an unscrupulous person gains access to your personal information and misuses it for their gain. It may include making withdrawals on bank accounts, making purchases on credit card or using the social security number to obtain a loan.
Identity thieves can be strangers, or they may be people who were close to your deceased loved one, such as friends or family members, wanting to get personal financial gain.
When an identity theft targets the deceased, it’s called ghosting. Ghosting occurs when someone steals information from different sources to open credit card or loans in the dead person’s name.
Sadly, often relatives who are in financial trouble may even commit identity theft on a deceased family member.
It takes six months or more for Social Security Administration, financial institution, and credit reporting bureau to receive, register, or share death records and let other governmental agencies know of the deceased. The fraudsters have ample time to use the identity of your loved one and gain from it.
Identity theft problem becomes so severe that the government is now beginning to change the way how the Social Security number of the deceased is displayed.
WHAT CAN BE STOLEN BY IDENTITY THEFT?
Identity theft may try attempting to steal the following:
- Social security number – to get a hold of financial assets like bank accounts before the rightful beneficiary mentioned on the bequest have the chance to collect.
- Government benefits – they may receive disability benefits on the deceased name or they may receive it falsely by claiming themselves to be the executor of the deceased’s estate.
- Tax returns – they can make fraudulent tax returns in the deceased’s name since internal audits are only done once every few years. It could be long enough for thieves to claim the proceeds and flee the country when caught.
- Driver’s license– they may try to steal the deceased driver’s license or a handicap parking permit, and use it for themselves. Relatives are more likely to do this than strangers.
- Medical information – to attempt to get the drug payment card to their address and use it to save on expensive medications.
WHERE DO THEY GET INFORMATION?
Thieves get their information in different ways, such as:
- Obituaries – thieves, can get birth dates, maiden names, birthplaces, and related family information from obituaries.
- Death Master File – Social Security Administration maintains a database of the deceased. This file includes both the full name and the Social Security number of the deceased. Ninety days after death, you can access this information through the Death Master file on the internet. Enter the deceased name and seconds later, and the identity thief gets the matching Social Security Number.
- Internet – with a name, address and birthday, thieves can purchase the person’s Social Security Number on the internet for as low as $10.
- Genealogy programs – some genealogy programs list the names, birthday, death, mother’s maiden name, and Social Security numbers.
- Death certificates – you can obtain vital information necessary to steal someone’s identity from the death certificate. Information such as name, birthday, and social security number can be found on the death certificate.
- Other relevant documents – birth certificates, marriage certificates, and other financial records and statements contain vital personal identifying information.
PREVENTING IDENTITY THEFT AFTER DEATH
1. Be careful about what information you put in the obituary.
An obituary is the number one information resource for thieves. Birthday, death, mother’s maiden name, other relatives’ name, and home address are typically included.
You need to limit the information you provide of your loved one. Put the age but don’t include the birthday, mother’s maiden name, or other personal identifiers to avoid serving us a credit profile for an identity thief.
Omitting your deceased loved one’s address also reduces the chances of a home burglary during the funeral.
2. Contact the Social Security Administration
After getting at least 12 original copies of the death certificate contact the Social Security Administration. Do this immediately because the majority of your loved one’s identity is connected to his Social Security Number.
Report the recent death of your loved one to the SSA by calling 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0078). You should notify them immediately, especially if the deceased were collecting any government benefit.
In most cases, the funeral director will report the death to SSA, but to ensure the death is reported promptly, a family member must make a report directly to an SSA representative between the time 7:00 am and 7:00 pm Monday through Friday.
3. Pull your loved one’s credit report before reaching out to the credit bureaus
It is important to have a credit report to get a clear idea of what financial accounts are still open. You can get this free at annualcreditreport.com. You’ll need to have the necessary information like the full name, address, birthday, and Social Security number.
You’ll need familiarity with the deceased to be able to pass the website’s multiple-choice security questions. You will be asked about prior addresses or which bank holds a current mortgage.
After a few weeks, recheck the credit report to see if there’s been any suspicious activity. After several months, get another credit report from a different credit-reporting bureau.
4. Report the death to the credit bureaus
It is best to call each bureau before sending the official death certificate because each bureau has specific requirements to mark the credit holder as deceased. Find out each specific requirements then write a letter notifying them of your loved one’s death.
The Credit Bureaus phone numbers are:
- Equifax 800-685-1111
- Experian 888-397-3742
- TransUnion 800-888-4213
You need to write the bureaus, and not just call them because you will need to provide a copy of the death certificate.
Also, provide evidence that you are the executor and have the legal right to request this action. Send them the certified letters with a request for confirmation of receipt.
Include the following specific information in the mail:
- Copy of the death certificate
- Proof of executorship or marriage certificate
Then mail the following documents to the credit bureau addresses below:
P.O Box 105518
Atlanta, GA 30348-5518
Experian National Consumer Assistance Center
P.O. Box 9701
Allen, TX 75013
1561 E. Orangethorpe Avenue
Fullerton, CA 92831
The California Department of Justice provides us a sample letter to Credit Bureaus Notifying of Death:
Dear [name of credit bureau]:
I am writing to request that a formal death notice be placed on the credit file of:
Deceased’s full name (with middle initial if used):
Most recent address:
Social Security number:
Enclosed please find one copy of decedent’s death certificate. Also attached is a copy of a document attesting to my authority as decedent’s executor/surviving spouse.
If you have any questions, you may contact me by telephone at [phone number] or by email at [email address].
[Your name and address]
5. Request a death flag
Notify the credit bureaus and ask them to flag your loved one’s account as “Deceased.” This puts a permanent credit freeze to the account so that no one can issue credit.
The death flag will alert a bank or credit company that the name being used to apply for a bank account or credit card belongs to a dead person.
You could use the death flag to enable credit bureaus to notify you if someone tried to use the identity of your loved one to open a new bank account or credit card. The death flag is permanent and will not be removed from the credit files.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives the estate representative or the spouse the legal authority to request a death flag to be placed on the deceased credit records for free.
6. Contact all financial institutions the decedent had accounts with
Contact every financial institution, such as:
- Credit card companies
- Insurance companies
- Other financial institution
That the decedent has accounts with and alert them as soon as possible so no one can make unauthorized transfers of withdrawals.
7. Contact every creditors listed in the credit report
Call and notify them of your loved one’s death. The creditors will then close the accounts and start necessary steps if the estate owes them money.
Mail death certificates to banks, insurance companies, brokerage, mortgage companies, and credit card companies where your deceased loved one held accounts. Make sure the institution list “Closed: Account Holder is Deceased” as the reason for closing the individual account. For joint accounts, remove the decedent’s name on the account.
To make the process quicker as you close the accounts, make sure you have enough number of copies of the death certificate the first time around.
Sample Letter to Creditor or Collection Agency on Account Opened in the Deceased’s Name
Dear [name of company]:
I am writing to notify you of an account that, I understand, was opened/accessed fraudulently in the name of [deceased’s name], who died on
As the [executor/surviving spouse], I request that you close that account without attempting further collection from me and that you place a formal death notice on the account.
Deceased’s full name (with middle initial if used):
Most recent address:
Enclosed please find a copy of decedent’s death certificate. Also enclosed is a document attesting to my authority as the decedent’s
If you have any questions, you may contact me by telephone, at [phone number] or by email at [email address].
[Your name and address]
8. Add the name of your deceased loved one to the Direct Marketing Association
Ask them to put the deceased name to do not call list. This is a free service to keep unsolicited offers for a new credit card or bank accounts from appearing in your mailbox, which is a favorite place for thieves to visit.
9. Cancel the decedent’s identity documents
Ask for the cancellation of your deceased loved one’s identity documents such as the driver’s license and passport. Contact the Department of Motor Vehicle to cancel the decedent’s driver’s license. It will prevent duplicates from being issued to thieves.
Notify the U.S. State Department that your loved one has died to cancel his passport so no one can use his identity to travel.
10. Shut down the email and social media accounts
Social media accounts such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram often display information about the deceased that can help identity thieves. These thieves are always trying to get as much personal information about the decedent in any medium they can. That’s why it’s crucial for family members or the state executor to remember to delete or memorialized the deceased social media accounts.
11. Don’t share personal information
Be cautious about who you share information with even with the family. Don’t leave credit cards, passbooks, brokerage statements lying around. Do not volunteer information to anybody. Refrain from telling anyone how much money or valuables the deceased has. That information needs to be kept within the family. Family members should be careful in trusting people who help them to manage the estate.
Birth certificates, marriage certificates, and other financial documents containing important, personally identifying information should be kept in a safe place. Avoid sharing these documents with personal identifying information with third-party institutions or individuals unless disclosure is required for any legal purpose.
Family members should be vigilant in completing the different steps in preventing identity theft after death. It is less likely our deceased family member will fall victim to identity theft if we follow these steps.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR DECEASED LOVED ONE IS THE VICTIM OF IDENTITY THEFT?
Here are the things we should do if our deceased loved one fall victim to identity theft:
- Contact the financial institution – Notify the institution immediately whether it’s a credit card company, stockbroker, or cellphone provider. Tell them that somebody is using their late customer’s identity for personal gain.
- Contact the Federal Trade Commission – The TFC operates a website, IdentityTheft.gov, where you can report any incident of identity theft on yourself or a deceased family member. Collaborate with them in the investigation. You must inform them that you do not have to pay for debts incurred by criminals who steal the identity of your loved one.
- Contact the police – file a police report. Identity theft is a crime that occurs in almost all jurisdictions of the police. You should notify them irrespective of whether assets have been stolen or not.