Turns out identity theft can go beyond the grave.
But fortunately there is something you can do about it.
Thieves use the identities of around 2.5 million deceased people each year for everything from credit cards and loans to tax refunds, according to a study by ID Analytics, a San Diego-based identity-theft protection firm.
The study looked at 100 million applications for credit cards, cell phones, retail and other credit products and financial services. It found approximately 800,000 instances where a deceased person’s identity was deliberately targeted for misuse and several hundred thousand cases where a dying person’s identity was potentially being misused.
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On top of that, there were 1.6 million fraudulent applications using a fabricated Social Security number that unintentionally matched the Social Security number of a deceased person.
While thieves can use public information such as birth dates in obituaries and names from genealogy websites to steal an identity, other sources include incomplete data in government files.
For example, this spring the inspector general of the Social Security Administration reported that his auditors found 6.5 million people with active Social Security numbers (SSNs) who were age 112 or older, and no death information on file.
“We initiated this review after a financial institution reported a man opened bank accounts with several different SSNs, two of which belonged to number holders born in 1886 and 1893” who were likely deceased, said Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr., the inspector general, in testimony before Congress.
Why should we care what happens to the identity of our deceased loved ones? Generally family members are not liable for any credit card debt or benefit received illegally from using personal information of a dead relative (unless they are doing the fraud themselves).
But such issues could quickly muddy the waters when dissolving an individual’s assets, costing time and money, according to Sally Hume, an elder law attorney and author of “The ABA AARP Checklist for Family Survivors.”
“The executor of the estate would have to clean up any identity theft problems,” she said.
Without the person alive and able to see any unusual account activity, identity thieves can have free reign, she said.
“Obviously that person is not checking credit reports or bank accounts or anything like that,” she said.
Nikki Fiorentino, spokeswoman for the Identity Theft Resource Center, said she was dismayed to find her own father’s Social Security number with his record on a genealogy website a few years ago.
The data came from Social Security’s death master files, a version of which was made public after a Freedom Of Information court case in 1978. O’Carroll said in his testimony that the Social Security file has since had some legal limits placed on it.
For example, SSA has removed the deceased’s last known state and zip code from the public Death Master File, he said. Also, a 2013 federal law delays including the death information on the public file for three years to reduce potential fraud and identity theft.
There are a number of steps family members can do to avoid this problem, Hume said.
First and foremost, send the family’s member death certificate to the three credit reporting bureaus and request a deceased flag be placed on the credit report, she said.
“There is no surefire way to prevent identity theft,” she said. “But at least if the account is flagged that this person is deceased, there’s a better opportunity that whoever might attempt to obtain credit will not be able to do their tomfoolery.”
The Identity Theft Reseource Center recommends sending the letters by certified mail and including the name, Social Security number, last address, last five years of addresses and date of birth and death of the deceased. The center also suggests that the report be flagged with the following alert: “Deceased. Do not issue credit. If an application is made for credit, notify the following person immediately,” listing the next surviving relative or an executor.
Second, notify credit card companies, banks, brokerage houses and any other place where the deceased had an account and request account closure or change of joint ownership, Hume said.
“Get a wagonload of death certificates from the funeral home,” she said. “You’re going to need one to spread far and wide.”
Hume also recommends limiting the amount of information in an obituary, including the deceased’s birth date.
“So many times people gush forth with a lot of personal details about their individual loved one,” she said. “We know that identity thieves read obituaries for that information.”
The center also recommends requesting a copy of the decedent’s credit report to let you know of any active credit accounts that need to be closed or pending collection notices.
Bottom line: protect your deceased loved one from ID theft after they’re gone.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net
Who to notify of a death
▪ Social Security Administration.
▪ Insurance companies – auto, health, life.
▪ Veteran’s Administration, if a former member of the military.
▪ Immigration Services — if not a U.S. citizen.
▪ Department of Motor Vehicles if the person had a driver’s license or state ID card. Transfer any vehicle registration papers to the new owners.
▪ Agencies with professional licenses such as the bar association, medical licenses, cosmetician.
▪ Membership programs like video rental, public library, fitness club.
Source: Identity Theft Resource Center