Imagine your grandmother calling you and saying she thinks your grandfather who passed away two months ago is still alive. She explains that she keeps getting credit card bills in his name and wants to know if he somehow escaped his fate.
You know the idea of your grandfather coming back to life isn't very realistic, especially since you attended his funeral. You have to explain to your grandmother that someone most likely stole her deceased husband's identity and is using it to commit credit card fraud and possibly other illegal activity.
Sadly, this type of fraud is more common than you might think.
Identity thieves steal around 2.5 million deceased American identities each year. Clearly, modern-day identity thieves won't hesitate to steal the identities of the deceased. And there's a reason why this type of crime is becoming popular.
Ghosting, identity theft that occurs when someone steals the identity of a deceased person, can be a fairly easy crime to commit. Identity thieves take advantage of the time between when a person dies and when their personal affairs and legal aspects are put in order.
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, "it can take up to 60 days for a name to make it onto the list". In other words, it can take that long for the Social Security Administration, credit bureaus, and financial institutions to act on the information that the person is deceased.
Attention: An official death notice is required for SSNs to be marked as inactive.
The Social Security Administration usually won't mark the deceased person's social security number as "inactive" until it receives an official death notice. The time before the deceased person's social security number and financial affairs are settled is when ghosting identity thieves thrive.
It's easier for identity thieves to steal the identity of a deceased person than the identity of someone still living; it's also easier for them to use that stolen identity.
When people die, there usually isn't someone who is constantly and closely monitoring their private information (like their financial accounts), so an identity thief might have a better chance using the stolen identity without getting noticed or caught. Unfortunately, this type of identity theft seems to be a simpler, lower risk crime than other identity theft tactics.
Here are a few steps you can take to protect a loved one's identity after death:
Place your trust in the right people
Sadly, the identity thief is often a family member of the deceased. Keep your guard up and make sure you trust the right people, even family members. Be cautious and protect as many of the physical and digital documents of the deceased as you can, including any financial records.
Report the death correctly as soon as possible
You should consider directly contacting the Social Security Administration, your local government, all three major credit bureaus, and all financial institutions and organizations that the deceased was associated with.
Notify each contact of the person's death and make sure proper action is taken. If you act promptly, you can narrow the window of time that identity thieves try to exploit.
Get copies of the deceased's death certificate
Once you are able to get a few copies of the deceased person's official death certificate, send a copy to the IRS, the major credit bureaus, etc.
By mailing out copies of the death certificate, you can have a "deceased alert" placed on the deceased's credit reports to help avoid identity theft. In general, keeping a few copies of the death certificate may come in handy in certain situations and can be especially useful if identity theft does occur.
Avoid putting too much information in the obituary
If you aren't careful, an identity thief can use the information in an obituary as a way to steal the deceased's identity. Avoid adding the person's birth date, birthplace, full name, home address, relatives' names, and other personal information.
Although it may be tempting to include this information in the obituary, just remember that it's more important that you keep the deceased's identity secure.
Collect physical documents and passwords
Collect all of the deceased's personal documents and financial pieces like credit cards, debit cards, passport, driver's license, social security card, birth certificate, tax forms, etc. Anyone could easily steal these documents and commit identity theft.
You should also collect all of the deceased's important passwords for bank accounts, computers, phones, websites, etc. Overall, the more documents and passwords you can secure, the better. Keeping these things secure will not only help protect the deceased's identity, but can also give you a peace of mind.
Being the one who is responsible for keeping a loved one's identity secure after death on can be a heavy burden to carry. However, if you follow the preventative steps above and do your own research, you should be able to keep the deceased's identity out of the hands of identity theft criminals.
Don't underestimate modern identity theft tactics and exercise caution when handling the deceased's documents and other personal information.