Reported cases of identity theft are increasing each year. In 2017, the Identity Theft Resource Center reported that nearly 179 million records were illegally released, a 44% increase of reported data breaches compared to 2016 figures.
Millions of Americans are at risk of identity theft thanks to the wide availability of personal information online and breaches that make Social Security numbers available for bulk purchase on the black market. If you notice unauthorized activity on your personal accounts, there are steps you can take to prevent further losses. But what happens when an identity is stolen after a person has passed away? Often, no one notices due to the natural grieving process and the sometimes overwhelming responsibilities that come with settling a person’s estate.
Unfortunately, posthumous identity theft is a real problem, affecting nearly 800 000 estates every year. It’s important to know how to protect the estate of your loved ones so their data is not exploited by criminals.
How Do Criminals Find the Information?
Criminals are often well-organized and work diligently to identify potential targets for posthumous identity theft. Massive security breaches like the 2017 Equifax hack have released plenty of personal details to the black market.
Databases of details such as full names, birthdates and addresses exist online for purchase. It’s possible that only small amounts of additional detail are required for identities to be stolen. People who have passed away make tempting targets as the theft can go unnoticed for a long time.
The next section outlines how you can reduce the amount of personal information available in the public domain for criminals to scavenge. Prior to the invention of the internet, criminals were known to crawl through trash cans to steal documents with personal details listed. This is still a concern when grieving relatives are required to clean a deceased relative’s home, and any documents that need to be discarded should first be shredded or destroyed before disposal.
With enough personal information in hand, thieves can use the deceased’s identity to open new accounts and lines of credit, take over existing accounts, and/or collect benefits in the victim’s name.
How to limit personal information in the public sphere
Losing a loved one is very difficult, and often emotions can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, it’s critical that one family member is made responsible for managing the estate of the deceased family member. This may be the nominated executor of the estate. Here is a list of things that should be taken care of promptly. Some of these actions can only be undertaken after an official death certificate is secured, so make it a priority to have the paperwork completed. This is often conducted by the funeral director, but may be produced by a health service such as a hospital if the family member passed away in care.
- Create a list of known bank accounts, credit cards, financial involvements and insurance policies. Get in contact with each provider and close or cancel the accounts,
- Cancel the person’s driver’s licence, passport and any other identity-related licences or permits,
- Send a copy of the death certificate to the IRS to notify them of the death to avoid tax fraud. Send the paperwork to the campus the person would normally file their taxes,
- Contact the three credit bureaus (addresses are listed at the bottom of this list) and ask them to put a note on the file to say the person is deceased. This will happen on its own when the Social Security Administration add the deceased’s Social Security number to the ‘Death Master List’, but it can take up to six months. It’s better to act immediately,
- If you have access to them, edit any social media accounts to remove personal information, or delete them. Some networks allow people to ‘memorialize’ the accounts so they cannot be altered but accessed by previous contacts.
There are also physical things you can take care of.
- Secure the person’s wallet as soon as you’re able. It’s not unheard of for identity documents to be stolen by unscrupulous support staff,
- Host the wake in a location anywhere except the person’s home. Some thieves target wakes to steal valuable items and documents while the families are distracted,
- Ask the post office to hold the mail if the person lived alone or in supervised care. This prevents sensitive information from sitting in an unsecured mailbox,
- Restrict the information you include in any public obituaries. Omit details such as their maiden name, birthdate and full address so the public can’t use the information to their own ends,
- As mentioned above, shred and destroy any documents that contain personal details and Social Security number. Do not throw them out without first making them unusable by thieves.
Credit bureau details
You will need to contact each credit bureau individually to place a ‘deceased alert’ on their credit file. This should stop all lenders from issuing new loans in your loved one’s name. Use secured or registered mail to post a certified copy of the death certificate, and a letter including the person’s full name, any past names including previous married and maiden names, Social Security number, dates of birth and death, and last 5 years of addresses.
- Equifax, PO Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374
- Experian, PO Box 4500, Allen, TX 75013
- TransUnion, PO Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016.
See also: How to place a fraud alert
Canadians can protect their loved one’s estate from posthumous identity theft by following the above mentioned advice regarding securing their personal details. The Government of Canada provides a comprehensive website that lists the appropriate agencies to contact, including credit bureaus and the Canada Revenue Agency.
Along with taking the precautions outlined above, British people can use the government’s Tell Us Once service to notify multiple government departments of a death. This will cancel the person’s passport, driver’s licence and social benefits, and remove them from the electoral roll, along with notifying other relevant departments. Contact credit bureau Experian by phone 0344 481 8000 or online at www.experian.co.uk
Contact Equifax online at https://www.equifax.co.uk/Contact-us/Contact_Us_Personal_Solutions.html
or by post at
Customer Service Centre
PO Box 10036
Australians should use the advice listed above to proactively protect against posthumous identity theft. The Australian government offers a comprehensive guide regarding who to contact, and includes options to notify the government of the death. This will secure the deceased person’s government details including Centrelink, child support and medicare. The Australian Tax Office will need to be notified separately.
Credit bureaus will need to be contacted individually to have a ‘death note’ attached to the file.
Equifax (formally Veda): https://www.equifax.com.au/ 1300 762 207
Experian: www.experian.com.au/ 1300 783 684
Illion (formally Dun & Bradstreet): https://www.checkyourcredit.com.au/ 1300 734 806