No doubt, you are aware your personal information is a valuable asset that could be of great benefit to an identity thief. You know this and you’re teaching your children to keep their identity private when they are online and not to share personal information – anything from name, address and phone number to, of course, financial information. But did you know that even after you die, your personal information is of great value to internet criminals?

It’s pretty hideous to imagine, that at a very sad and vulnerable moment in your family’s life, someone is out there, wanting to steal the identity of your loved one who has recently died. These criminals read obituaries and troll websites that are used for genealogy research, with the intent to steal death certificates as a first step for taking over an identity for financial gain. Sometimes these thieves are strangers and sometimes they are family members.

How does this happen?

There can be a considerable gap in time from when the Social Security Administration transmits a death master file to the financial industry. Until the credit agency or banking entity learns that someone is deceased, these accounts will remain active. In some cases, this financial limbo could go on indefinitely, as the death master file is not entirely accurate because it is based on information provided by consumers and some governmental agencies.

What does this mean to you?

This means that on top of all of the overwhelming details and emotions surrounding a loved one’s death, you need to be aware that it’s up to you to notify the credit reporting agencies and all creditors about their death. Otherwise, their accounts will remain open – in fact, an active credit file will stay open for up to 10 years without activity. Internet thieves are trained to look for these gaps. And, as we know, our Social Security numbers have been widely shared via various hacking efforts. It’s not hard for criminal to connect a deceased person’s name with a Social Security number.

Here are some steps, from the Identity Theft Resource Center, that you should take to ensure that your deceased loved ones identity does not get stolen:

  • Obtain at least 12 copies of the official death certificate when it becomes available. In some cases, you will be able to use a photocopy, but some businesses will request an original death certificate. Since many death records are public, a business may require more than just a death certificate as proof.
  • If there is a surviving spouse or other joint account holders, make sure to immediately notify relevant credit card companies, banks, stock brokers, loan/lien holders and mortgage companies of the death.
  • The executor or surviving spouse will need to discuss all outstanding debts and how they will be dealt with. You will need to transfer the account to another person or close the account. If you close the account, ask them to list it as: “Closed. Account holder is deceased.”
  • Contact all CRAs, credit issuers, collection agencies and any other financial institutions that need to know of the death using the required procedures for each one. The following are general tips:
    • Include the following information in all letters:
      • Name and SSN of deceased
      • Last known address
      • Last 5 years of addresses
      • Date of birth
      • Date of death
      • To speed up processing, include all requested documentation specific to that agency in the first letter
    • While it is best to first notify all entities by telephone, these calls must be followed-up in writing. Send all mail certified, return receipt requested.
    • Keep copies of all correspondence, including the letters that you send, noting date sent and any response(s) you receive.
    • Request a copy of the decedent’s credit report – refer to ITRC Letter Form LF 117-1. A review of each report will let you know of any active credit accounts that still need to be closed or any pending collection notices. Be sure to ask for all contact information on accounts currently open in the name of the deceased (credit grantors, collection agencies, etc.) so that you can follow through with those entities.
    • Request that the report is flagged with the following alert: “Deceased. Do not issue credit. If an application is made for credit, notify the following person(s) immediately: (list the next surviving relative, executor/trustee of the estate and/or local law enforcement agency- noting the relationship).”
    • NOTE: Friends, neighbors or distant relatives do not have the same rights as a spouse or executor of the estate. They are classified as a third party and a CRA may not mail out a credit report or change data on a consumer file upon their request. If you fall into this classification and are dealing with a very unique situation, you may write to the CRA and explain the situation. They are handled on a case-by-case basis.
  • Other groups to notify:
    • Social Security Administration
    • Insurance companies – auto, health, life, etc.
    • Veteran’s Administration – if the person was 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. Also make sure that any vehicle registration papers are transferred to the new owners
    • Agencies that may be involved due to professional licenses – bar association, medical licenses, cosmetician, etc.
    • Any membership programs—public library, fitness club, etc.

See sample letters and learn more from the Identity Theft Resource Center.

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