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It’s bad enough that the living have to worry about identity theft. But criminals also exploit the deceased with “ghosting” schemes. These thieves steal the identities of those who’ve died to open credit card and service accounts and obtain loans and tax refunds. Here’s how to prevent fraudsters from taking advantage of your family.

Window of opportunity

Months may elapse between the time a person dies and when financial institutions, credit bureaus and government entities update their records. This provides fraudsters with a big window of opportunity. Making identity theft even easier is the fact that victims aren’t around to monitor their finances and grieving families are often occupied with other matters.

It can take as long as 60 days for a name to make it onto the Death Master File maintained by the Social Security Administration (SSA). In addition, the deceased person’s credit accounts remain open until reporting agencies and creditors are notified of the death. An account can stay open for as long as 10 years without showing any activity.

Preventive steps

Take these steps as quickly as possible to help foil ghosting scammers:

Don’t put too much information in an obituary. Omit items such as birth date, address, mother’s maiden name or other personal identifiers that identity thieves can exploit.

Obtain at least a dozen copies of the official death certificate. In many states, you can get either informational or “certified” copies of a death certificate. Depending on your state, certified copies may only be available to immediate family, the estate executor or those who can prove a direct financial interest in the estate.

Request a copy of the deceased’s credit reports. Each report will indicate whether any credit accounts remain open (and, therefore, need to be closed) and whether any collection notices are pending. Be sure to ask for all contact information indicated on the deceased’s open accounts.
If you’re a surviving spouse or joint property owner, immediately notify credit card companies, banks and other financial institutions, creditors and mortgage companies of the death. Review all reports for evidence of fraud. If you find something suspicious, add an alert to the report, notify the police and contact any creditor associated with an affected account.

Mail copies of the death certificates to credit bureaus. Send copies by certified mail with return receipt to Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Ask the bureaus to place “deceased” on the report. For joint accounts, remove the deceased’s name. Send the IRS a copy of the death certificate as well, so the agency can flag the account.

Inside job?

Ghosting is typically perpetrated by strangers who use publicly available information to steal identities. But don’t discount the possibility that a family member or friend might commit this type of fraud. If you need help with stranger identity theft or you suspect an inside job, contact us. We can help investigate.

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