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Avoiding Postmortem Identity Theft  

Ghosting. Grave robbery. Impersonating the dead. Any way you say it, postmortem identity theft is scary, and unfortunately common. Postmortem identity theft happens when a scammer obtains information from an obituary or stolen death certificate, or buys personal information about a deceased person off the internet. With the stolen information, thieves open fraudulent credit accounts and charge thousands of dollars to new accounts. Some scammers can use the stolen identity to avoid immigration or other legal problems.

Scammers find this type of ID theft easy to commit and particularly lucrative, as grieving family members often don’t think to look for fraudulent activity. It often takes months before someone notices something amiss, but by then, significant damage has been done.

If the accounts are opened only in the deceased’s name, surviving family members most likely will not be liable for the debt. However, they will have to spend a good deal of time, and sometimes money, untangling records. If the spouse of a deceased victim shared joint accounts, the spouse could be exposed to more problems.

To help reduce the risk of postmortem identity theft after a loved one dies, take these steps:

  • Don’t put too much information in the obituary or on social media. Don’t include addresses or a mother’s maiden name, and only list the birth year {omit the day and month}.
  • Order 12 or more official copies of the death certificate. You’ll need to send them to many different agencies.
  • Contact the “big 3” credit reporting agencies {Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion} in writing and ask that a “deceased” alert be placed on the deceased’s credit report.
  • Other groups to notify in writing with a copy of the death certificate:

1. Social Security Administration: The funeral home is required to report the death, but it’s wise to confirm that this was done.

2. Credit unions, creditors, stockbrokers, and other financial institutions: It’s also good to review your loved one’s credit report. That way it will be easier to catch any posthumous changes, should they occur.

3. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV): to cancel the driver’s license and to transfer any vehicle registration papers.

4. Insurance companies

5. Utility companies

6. Veteran’s Administration (if the deceased was a member of the military)

7. Immigration services (if the deceased wasn’t a U.S. citizen)

8. Agencies awarding professional licenses (such as medical licenses or the bar association)

9. Other memberships (such as libraries, fitness clubs, etc.).

  • Fill out the “Deceased Do Not Contact Registration” form to take the deceased off commercial marketing lists. There is no charge for doing this.
  • After about a month has passed, get a free credit report to check for suspicious activity. If you find that someone is using the identity of a deceased family member, contact local law enforcement and fill out a police report. You’ll need this to challenge any fraudulently accrued debts.

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