Editor’s Note: The information in this column is not intended as legal advice but to provide a general understanding of the law. Any readers with a legal problem, including those whose questions are addressed here, should consult an attorney for advice on their particular circumstances.
Identity theft of the deceased has become a real and serious problem. Each year the identities of nearly 2.5 million deceased Americans is used to fraudulently open credit card accounts, apply for loans and get cellphone or other services, according to fraud prevention firm ID Analytics.
Nearly 800,000 of those deceased are deliberately targeted — roughly 2,200 a day. The identities of the others are used by chance. Scammers scan through the obituaries for names and addresses and then buy the personal data and Social Security numbers and credit histories of the newly departed for as small an amount as $10-$15 on the internet.
It’s called “ghosting,” and because it can take six months for financial institutions, credit-reporting bureaus and the Social Security Administration to receive, share or register death records, the scammers have ample time to rack up charges. Plus, of course, the dead don’t monitor their credit — and often, neither do their grieving survivors.
During tax season, criminals may file tax returns under the identities of the dead, collecting refunds (they totaled $5.2 billion in 2011) from the IRS.
The only good news here is that surviving family members are ultimately not responsible for such charges (or for legitimate debts of the dead if their names are not on the accounts). But ghosting can still cause plenty of angst. So protect yourself by taking these steps after a loved one’s death:
In obituaries, list the age but don’t include birth date, mother’s maiden name or other personal identifiers that could be useful to ID thieves. Omitting the person’s address also reduces the likelihood of a home burglary during the funeral.
Using certified mail with “return receipt,” send copies of the death certificate to each credit-reporting bureau — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — asking them to place a “deceased alert” on the credit report. Mail certificates to banks, insurers, brokerages and credit card and mortgage companies where the deceased held accounts. If you’re closing an individual account, make sure the institution lists “Closed: Account Holder Is Deceased” as the reason. For joint accounts, remove the deceased’s name.
Report the death to Social Security by calling 800-772-1213.
Contact the department of motor vehicles to cancel the deceased’s driver’s license, to prevent duplicates from being issued to fraudsters.
A few weeks later, check the credit report of the person at annualcreditreport.com to see if there’s been any suspicious activity. Several months later, go to the same site to get another free report from a different credit-reporting bureau.
Another simple way to help stop this type of identity theft is to spread the word. Let your family and friends know this happens and caution them not to list information that could be used for identity theft. We all understand we would like to honor our loved ones upon death, just choose to do so wisely.
Sam A. Moak is an attorney with the Huntsville law firm of MOAK & MOAK, P.C. He is licensed to practice in all fields of law by the Supreme Court of Texas and is a Member of the State Bar College. www.moakandmoak.com