Identity theft is the last thing a grieving family should have to worry about after the loss of a loved one. Unfortunately, identity thieves have increasingly targeted the identities of deceased people, using their names and other identifying information to get credit cards, apply for loans, collect refunds based on fraudulent tax returns, and even obtain “proof” of U.S. citizenship. Although family members are not personally responsible for the debts of their deceased loved ones, it may take an effort to resolve the situation if a loved one’s identity is stolen. You and your family can take action to prevent identity theft from happening.
What Should You Do to Prevent the Theft of a Deceased Loved One’s Identity?
Thieves will not wait for your family to grieve before trying to steal and use your loved one’s identity to open accounts. A spouse, family member, or the executor of the deceased person’s estate should take immediate action to prevent the decedent’s personal information from being stolen.
- Don’t reveal personal information. Although some criminals obtain the personal information of people who have passed away from funeral homes or hospitals, it is more common for them to look for this information online or in print obituaries. As a result, it is important not to list the deceased person’s birth date, address, or mother’s maiden name, which, along with the person’s full name, could be used to illegally purchase the person’s Social Security number. It is also important to exercise similar caution when posting a notice on social media.
- Immediately take steps to close credit accounts. Look for the deceased person’s credit cards in wallets or purses and contact those companies to notify them of the death and close the accounts. Neal O’Farrell of the Identity Theft Council, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to prevent and remediate identity theft, also recommends obtaining a copy of the person’s credit report from annualcreditreport.com to learn about all the accounts currently open in the person’s name. Alternatively, a family member or the executor can mail a request to the credit bureaus providing certain identifying information for themselves and their loved one, as well as a death certificate. At that point, they can contact any other creditors listed to notify them that the account holder has died. This will prevent thieves from using any existing credit card accounts.
- Contact all banks, investment companies, lenders, or mortgage companies. Even if a surviving spouse is also an account holder, it is important to notify these companies of the death.
Warning: Although there are regulatory protections for credit card accounts and bank deposits limiting losses from unauthorized transactions, there is no similar protection for mutual funds, brokerage investments, and retirement accounts. As a result, it is important to make these notifications as soon as possible.
- Notify the three major credit bureaus. To ensure that new credit cannot be obtained using the deceased person’s identify, the main credit bureaus must be notified in writing. Although the Social Security Administration will eventually contact the credit bureaus to notify them that a person has died, this often does not occur for months after the death. Send a letter and an original copy of your loved one’s death certificate via certified mail with a return receipt to each of the three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion–to request that a deceased alert be placed on the credit report. In addition, you should request that a surviving relative or the executor be notified if an application for credit is made. If you are a family member, you may also have to include proof of your relationship, such as a marriage license. To expedite the notification process even further, Experian provides family members with the option of uploading the death certificate directly to its system, and Equifax allows family members to email the death certificate to it (but keep in mind that email is not the most secure way to transmit this information).
- Notify the Social Security Administration (SSA). Funeral directors often report deaths to the SSA as part of the services they offer to the deceased person’s family, but the responsibility for ensuring that the notification is given is ultimately on the survivors, who should contact their local Social Security office or call the SSA’s toll-free number. This notification is especially important if the deceased person was collecting benefits.
- Notify the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). To prevent thieves from filing a fraudulent tax return to obtain a refund in the deceased person’s name, the IRS should be sent a copy of the death certificate, which should be mailed to the address where the deceased person normally filed a tax return. In addition, a copy of the death certificate should be sent to the IRS with the deceased person’s final tax return.
- Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles. It is also important to cancel your loved one’s driver’s license so that a criminal cannot fraudulently obtain a new one.
- Monitor the deceased person’s credit report. Continue to check your loved one’s reports regularly to ensure that there is no credit activity, and if there is, contact the police, the credit bureaus, and the creditor as soon as possible.
- Notify any other relevant groups. There are a number of entities that could have your loved one’s personal information or may have been providing benefits to him or her, for example, the Veteran’s Administration if the deceased person was a veteran, Medicare, and any relevant professional licensing agencies.
If you discover that your loved one’s identity has been stolen despite your efforts to prevent it, contact the police and notify any company involved immediately.
We Can Help
It’s hard enough to lose a loved one, and the stress induced by identity theft can make the loss even more painful. We can help ensure that you and the executor of your loved one’s estate take all the steps necessary to prevent your deceased loved one’s identity from being stolen. Contact us today for an appointment to discuss this or any of your other estate planning concerns.
Nielsen Law PLLC provides family focused estate planning to individuals and families in Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, and the Central Texas area. For more information and to learn about our firm, please contact us.