There are a reported 2.5 million cases of identity theft among the deceased every year. Theft of deceased people’s identity happens partly because of the availability of public records coupled with the time it takes for credit bureaus, the Social Security Administration, financial institutions and others to process a deceased person’s Social Security number (SSN) in their systems and close all current and future lines of credit.
Many states’ vital statistics registries include Social Security numbers in their records and on their certified death certificates. Because these records are public, anyone can obtain a death certificate with a Social Security number. Criminals also seek out a recently deceased person’s information upon learning of his or her death via hospitals, funeral homes and obituaries. In some cases, the thief may have direct access to the person’s information from the inside, and in other cases the scammer contacts a relative posing as any of the above or a government agency.
The three credit bureaus maintain a list of the deceased based on data from the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File Index. Sometimes it takes months for bureaus to update their databases with the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File Index.
Relatives who learn of identity theft are not responsible for any fraud that occurs. However, they may find themselves spending lots of time explaining away the fact that the person is deceased—and death doesn’t always stop collection agencies from trying to get a loved one’s money, either.
Here’s how to avoid that information from falling between the cracks.
- Report the death yourself by calling the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213.
- Contact the credit bureaus directly to report a death and request the information to be recorded immediately.
- Right now, before anyone perishes, get the person a credit freeze. Upon death (as in life), the person’s Social Security number will be useless to the thief.
- Invest in identity theft protection. This is a layer of security that monitors one’s information, including Social Security number, in the wild. Have it activated for six months to a year after death.
- The Identity Theft Resource Center suggests, “Immediately notify credit card companies, banks, stockbrokers, loan/lien holders and mortgage companies of the death. The executor or surviving spouse will need to discuss all outstanding debts. If you close the account, ask them to list it as: ‘Closed. Account holder is deceased.’ If there is a surviving spouse or other joint account holder, make sure to notify the company the account needs to be listed in that surviving person’s name alone. They may require a copy of the death certificate to do this, as well as permission from the survivor.”