Identity thieves sometimes target the deceased, adding greater pain to the already difficult grieving process. Deceased identity theft, also known as ghosting identity theft, can occur in a number of ways. Criminals may watch the obituaries, locate grieving family members, and physically steal death certificates. They can also get this information online, such as through the Social Security Death Index, which was created to enable genealogy research. Sadly, sometimes relatives may even commit identity theft of a deceased family member.
Since identity theft after death affects another individual’s personal information and accounts, you won’t find the typical warning signs in your accounts (unless you share a joint account). The best way to stop deceased identity theft is to prevent it before it even happens.
Preventing Deceased Identity Theft
To prevent identity theft after death, take the recommended actions listed below.
Keep information secure: In the obituary, omit the deceased’s birth date, mother’s maiden name, last known address, or other nonessential identifiers that can make a would-be thief’s work easier. Ensure that the deceased’s personal documents are safely stored or destroyed.
Notify financial institutions: For each institution, start with a telephone call and then follow up with a letter containing the death certificate and any other documents the institution requires. Make sure to use certified mail with return receipt requested. Throughout the process, keep a document of who you contact and when.
First, contact all three credit reporting agencies and ask that the deceased’s credit report get flagged “Deceased: Do Not Issue Credit.” From there, notify banks, credit card companies, mortgage companies, stock brokers, and loan holders of the death. You’ll either want to close accounts, transfer ownership, or—in the case of a joint account—have the deceased’s name removed.
Notify other relevant groups: The Social Security Administration, insurance providers, and DMV must all be notified. Also consider health clubs and professional licensing groups, such as the bar association.
Check the deceased’s credit: Request his or her report after a month or so to check for suspicious activity. Do this again after several months have passed to verify.
See our Identity Theft Prevention Checklist.
Recovering From Deceased Identity Theft
Should deceased identity theft affect you, begin the recovery process by having the decedent’s credit report flagged and closing his or her accounts if you haven’t already. From there, request a copy of his or her credit report and review for further suspicious activity. File a report with the police and the Federal Trade Commission and collaborate with them in their investigation. Know that surviving family members do not have to pay for debts incurred by a criminal who has stolen the identity of their deceased relative.
Learn more about recovering from identity theft.