By Gail Rubin, CT
Twenty-five percent of the identities stolen every year are taken from dead people. A family grieving the death of a loved one doesn’t need the headaches of identity theft on top of heartache over the loss. The identities of the dead are easier to steal and abuse than those of the living – after all, they can’t fight back.
But there are ways to minimize information exposure to help let the dead, and their financials, rest in peace. Here are six tips for avoiding after-death ID theft.
Alert the credit bureaus – When someone dies, either the surviving spouse or estate representative should contact the credit reporting bureaus – Experian (888-397-3742), Equifax (800-685-1111) and TransUnion (800-888-4213). You’ll need to provide the deceased’s Social Security number and tell them the person has died. Request that their credit report be flagged with the note “Deceased. Do Not Issue Credit.” Also, ask for a copy of the deceased’s credit report so you know what accounts need to be closed.
Follow up with each agency by sending a letter by certified mail. Provide proof of your relationship to the deceased and proof of authority for the request. The correspondence should include the deceased’s name, last address, Social Security number, birth date, date of death and a copy of the death certificate. Include your name, contact information and relationship to the deceased. If you are the court- appointed representative of the estate, you should also include proof of your court appointment. Keep a copy of this letter for your records.
Contact the Social Security Administration – The Social Security Administration (SSA) wants to know if someone died so they can remove them from the payroll. As an incentive, they provide a death benefit of $225 when you report a deceased beneficiary. Why a whopping $225? Because that’s what an average funeral cost in 1938 when the SSA was established. It’s one SSA benefit that was never adjusted for inflation. Nowadays, that won’t cover an obituary in a major market newspaper.
Close credit card accounts – When you’re alive, shutting down credit card accounts affects your credit rating. After you’re dead, it doesn’t matter! Don’t let a thief go on a shopping holiday by leaving credit card accounts open. The surviving spouse or executor must resolve all outstanding debts before the account can be closed or the deceased person’s name can be removed from the account.
Keep obituaries short – You wouldn’t put a Social Security number in an obituary. Yet the details prized by genealogical researchers also help identity thieves. It’s a sad fact that information like place of birth, mother’s maiden name, date of birth and date of death can be used to set up new accounts under the deceased person’s name. Avoid putting such details into obituaries that are shared publicly in newspapers or online.
This obituary for the character Walter White in the TV series “Breaking Bad” is actually a good example of an obituary that doesn’t give too much personal information away.
Close email and social media accounts – Shutting down email and social media accounts can help avoid identity theft, as well as minimize painful reminders of the loss. A service called eClosure can close down the emails and social media accounts of a deceased person – also known as digital assets – even if the family does not have the passwords. For $150, with a death certificate and a valid ID, eClosure can shut down Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, Yahoo Mail, Microsoft Mail and other accounts.
Protect documents with sensitive information – The executor or trustee should secure the deceased’s driver’s license, bank statements, military records, and other documents with a Social Security number. ID thefts can often originate within the family. Someone may feel they got shorted in the will; someone may be an addict. There can be any number of family issues.
Take these steps to help secure the identity of the deceased as soon as possible. It can save a lot of headaches as well as heartaches.
Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®, brings a light touch to serious subjects as a speaker who uses humor and funny films to attract people to discuss mortality, end-of-life, estate and funeral planning issues. She is Certified in Thanatology: Death, Dying and Bereavement by the Association for Death Education and Counseling. A pioneering Death Café hostess, she is author of the award-winning book and host of the TV and radio shows A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die.