Identity thieves respect no one -- not even the recently
deceased. In fact, a person's identity may be more susceptible to
ID theft in the months following death than when they were
The problem is increasing. In one example, federal
authorities say, a group of sophisticated identity thieves managed
to steal nearly $4 million by filing bogus tax returns using the
names and Social Security numbers of 1,900 other people,
most of them deceased. In other cases, thieves have been known
to start stealing identities the moment people die in a
The Internal Revenue Service, at the request of Scripps Howard
News Service, in 2011 revealed that tax filers improperly submitted
350,000 returns on dead Americans in the prior tax season. The
improperly claimed returns totaled $1.25 billion.
"Stealing the identity of the dead is so wrong, and so easy,"
says Robert Siciliano, McAfee consultant and identity theft expert.
"It is made even easier by public records. A provision in federal
law that reformed welfare in the 1990s also created a loophole that
could allow swindlers to obtain the Social Security numbers of the
How they get away with it
When a person dies, several factors come together to create the
perfect scenario for identity theft. Death and other records are
widely available. "There are Excel files of the deceased online,"
says Siciliano. In an effort to reduce welfare and Social Security
benefit fraud that occurs when people collect benefits on behalf of
the deceased, the government started publishing names and Social
Security numbers in the Social Security Administration's
Death Master File, which is widely available on the Internet. One
problem may have been partially solved, but another was created.
Crooks can find all the Social Security numbers of deceased persons
they want without getting up from their computers. Even some
genealogy programs list Social Security numbers with names, dates
of birth and death, and mother's maiden names.
It takes time to settle a person's affairs after death, and
during that time thieves can get to work. Waiting for bills to come
in, notifying creditors and filing taxes can easily take a year or
longer. In the general confusion, as family members try to sort out
their loved one's financial affairs, a few mystery debts may get
thrown in with the rest and no one is the wiser. Deceased people
can't defend themselves, and personal representatives or executors
have no easy way to know which debts are legitimate.
Sadly, some ID theft is from family and close friends, who don't
see any harm in helping themselves to their deceased dad's credit
cards and possibly opening some new ones. "A lot of times the
perpetrator is a family member," says Bill Hazelton, personal
finance and credit expert. "It's just bait for any family members
who are in financial troubles or late on a mortgage, etc."
According to Javelin Strategy and Research, one out of seven cases
of identity theft was committed by a relative, friend or
The problem has become so severe that the government is
beginning to change how they display Social Security numbers of the
deceased. Government records are only part of the problem, however.
Crooks also scan newspaper obituaries to see who has died.
ID theft prevention steps
Siciliano's advice for preventing unauthorized opening of credit in
anyone's name while you are alive is simple: Get a credit freeze.
"It is the cure for new account fraud. No creditor is going to
grant credit to someone when you have a credit freeze." Without a
credit freeze, a person's credit is wide open. Anyone can take a
Social Security number and check that person's credit, and with
very little trouble, start opening accounts left and right in his
To find out how to go about requesting a credit freeze, read
"Put your credit on ice with a credit freeze."
Once a person dies, you need to make sure a person's death is
recorded immediately in the national death index, according to
Siciliano. "You want to contact your local government, city hall or
your version of state vital statistics," he says. "It's different
in every state."
Call the Social Security administration at 800-772-1213 to
report the death (TTY 800-325-0778).
Next, notify the credit bureaus. Ask them to flag the account as
"deceased" -- which is a permanent credit freeze -- so no one can
issue credit. Their phone numbers are:
- Equifax 800-685-1111
- Experian 888-397-3742
- TransUnion 800-888-4213
You also need to contact all the financial institutions the
deceased had accounts with -- banks and credit card companies,
insurance and stock brokers, anything financially related -- and
alert them ASAP so no one can make unauthorized transfers or
withdrawals. "Expediency is really the key," says Hazelton. "That's
what ID thieves really rely on is that complacency window. Jumping
on it right away is really important."
To speed things up as you close accounts, make sure you get
enough original copies of the death certificate the first time
around. Hazelton recommends about a dozen original copies. "Pay the
nominal charge and get the death certificates. You're not going to
be able to close the account unless you have the certificate.
They're not going to accept a copy."
Also, be careful about what you put in the obituary. Many
obituaries are an identity thief's dream. Dates of birth and death,
mother's maiden name and even relative's names and home address are
commonly included. "People give away so much info in their
obituaries that it's just nuts," says Hazelton. "You need to limit
the information to honor the deceased, but not to serve up a credit
profile for an ID thief. That's the first place they go is the
Be very judicious about who you share information with in the
family, too. Don't leave credit cards, check books or brokerage
statements lying about, and don't volunteer how much money or
valuables Grandpa had or where it's held. "That info needs to be
kept in a really small circle," says Hazelton.
If you take a few precautionary steps before identity thieves
have a chance to act, they'll soon move on to easier victims.
That's the best way to make sure your loved one's estate is left to
relatives and any good causes as intended, instead of being
squandered on new cars and island retreats for the bad guys.