identity theft isn’t just something that you have to worry about for yourself. If you are responsible for the estate of a recently-deceased family member, it’s important to protect their personal information so that thieves cannot take advantage of the situation.
According to a recent study, thieves use the identities of as many as 2.5 million deceased people each year to take out credit cards, loans and claim tax refunds. Sometimes, this isn’t deliberate. Recently, the Social Security Administration found that approximately 1.6 million fraudulent Social Security applications use numbers that unintentionally match that of a deceased person.
“We initiated this review after a financial institution reported a man opened bank accounts with several different SSNs, two of which belonged to number holders born in 1886 and 1893,” Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr., the inspector general, said in testimony before Congress.
Other times, the deceased are deliberately targeted. Since the victims are no longer living and cannot monitor their credit, these incidents often go undetected for a longer period of time than other forms of identity theft.
This is important, because these incidents of ID theft can still negatively impact living relatives. Individuals are technically not liable for any credit card debt or benefits received when a dead relative’s personal information is used illegally. However, such crimes make life difficult for executors who seek to divide up a person’s assets. In certain scenarios, thieves may be able to steal money that might have otherwise gone to surviving beneficiaries, depending on the personal information that they get their hands on.
The good news is that the Social Security Administration seems to have learned from past mistakes and is taking steps to limit the availability of a deceased person’s information. For instance, a 2013 law delays including death information — such as the last known state and zip code — on the public file for three years. In theory, this should make it more difficult for identity thieves to steal.
In addition, a recent article on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram notes several steps that families can take to prevent identity theft from happening to their recently deceased relatives. They can send the family member’s death certificate to the three credit reporting agencies and request that their credit reports be flagged. They can also notify banks and credit card companies to ensure that any outstanding accounts are closed.
“There is no surefire way to prevent identity theft,” Nikki Fiorentino, spokeswoman for the Identity Theft Resource Center, told the news source. “But at least if the account is flagged that this person is deceased, there’s a better opportunity that whoever might attempt to obtain credit will not be able to do their tomfoolery.”
Finally, families should consider limiting the amount of information they share in a newspaper obituary. While it may be tempting to add as many details as possible, too much information could give identity thieves an excellent starting point.
Using a credit monitoring services can help you look out for some of the broader financial impacts of ID theft and alert you of certain activity that may be indicative of fraud on the credit files of one of your deceased relatives.