Ralph Lee Guttormsen lived with his roommate, Robert Sterling, in Monterey, California, for a number of years. In 2002 Sterling died from medical problems and Guttormsen decided to assume his identity. With his friend’s driver’s license he used credit cards, withdrew money from Sterling’s bank accounts and cashed checks. The scam lasted for four years, mostly because Guttormsen was careful about never opening a new account, which would have alerted the authorities.
That isn’t the only type of identity theft that can affect the dead. Many thieves scan newspaper obituaries for the names of dead, which they then connect to the Social Security numbers (SSN) of other individuals, living or dead. This piecing together of a new identity from existing information is know as synthetic identity theft. The new identity is difficult to track because it pulls together data from so many different sources.
So what can you do to protect the identity of a recently deceased friend or family member? Here are a few tips:
- Death certificates: Request multiple copies of the death certificate. This document will often be needed when dealing with authorities.
- Documentation: Immediately start a log of finances and accounts. If you have an attorney they can take care of this, otherwise the duty falls to the executor of the estate. Make sure all documents and belongings are organized and accounted for. Experts suggest that all physical documents should be kept under lock and key at all times, and should be accessible only by a few necessary individuals.
- Credit reports: Request copies of credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus. The requirements to obtain this document after the account holder’s death differ from bureau to bureau. For example, Equifax requests a copy of the death certificate, a letter of testamentary from the probate court and a copy of photo identification of the individual receiving the credit report.
- Notify creditors: Immediately tell all creditors of the death, using a death certificate to verify the person’s passing. The list of creditors can be found on the credit report.
- Social Security benefits: Call the Social Security Administration and request a benefits statement to review. This document will help you find out if someone is using your loved one’s name or Social Security number to work or file taxes.
- Avoid over-sharing: There’s no need to spread the word of the death too far. Avoid obituaries and social media, since thieves will be looking for any opportunity to gather information.
No one needs the added burden of dealing with identity theft after the death of a loved one. Make sure you take these steps to help ensure that your dearly departed does not fall victim to identity theft.