Identity theft of deceased individuals is called "ghosting" and it has become incredibly widespread.
How Ghosting Happens
How do criminals get the information they need from a deceased person in order to steal their identity? For the most part, we give it to them.
First, the thieves go through obituaries in the newspaper to find the name, address and birthdates of the people they plan to target.
Next, they use websites on the Internet to purchase that person's Social Security number. With just that information, they have everything they need in order to steal an identity.
What Do the Criminals Do With the Stolen Identity?
Thieves can commit a number of crimes once they have stolen an identity, whether the victim is alive or not:
First, they may open credit card accounts and make purchases in the name of the deceased person. Often, this can go on for months, because the deceased and their heirs are not receiving the credit card statements, which may be sent to a P.O. Box or dummy address. In addition, the deceased are not reviewing their credit reports. Their heirs are probably not reviewing the credit reports, either.
Another type of crime occurs when the identity thieves go so far as to file fraudulent tax returns and collect refunds. In fact, thieves actually collected $5.2 billion in 2011 alone by using ghosting techniques with the IRS!
How to Prevent Ghosting
With a few simple steps, family members can reduce the likelihood that the identities of their deceased loved ones will be stolen:
When you write an obituary, do not include the mother's maiden name, the birth date of the deceased, or any other detailed personal information that could help identity thieves. In addition, do not include the home address of the deceased or any other family members. Not only will you make it harder for identity thieves, but you will also make it less likely that your home will be burglarized during the funeral. (Of course, that's an additional problem that can come from releasing too much information in an obituary.)
Make sure you order plenty of copies of the death certificate. You will need to mail them to each of the credit-reporting bureaus as well as insurance companies, banks, brokerage firms, credit card companies and the mortgage company. If any of these are joint accounts, have the name of the deceased removed from the accounts as soon as possible. If they are individual accounts in the name of the deceased only, have the accounts closed. One of my friends, who has dealt with the death of several relatives, recommends that you get at least 20 certified copies of the death certificate because there are so many places where it needs to be sent. She believes it is important to request more than you think you will need, because you do not want to have to through the delay of requesting additional certified death certificates.
Contact the Social Security Administration right away. You can call them at (800) 772-1213 and report the death of your family member.
Contact the DMV in your state and cancel the drivers license of the deceased.
Even after doing all this, you should wait a couple of months and then check the credit report of your loved one at annualcreditreport.com to make sure there has not been any recent activity. Do it again a few months later. If you see anything suspicious, report it immediately.
Being careful to prevent ghosting can also prevent a lot of headaches for the heirs and the trustees of the estate. No one wants to deal with proving that purchases made or tax returns that were filed were done by criminals and not by the heirs.
If you are interested in learning more about issues related to aging and retirement, check out the index articles listed below. Each one contains a few comments as well as links to more articles on that topic:
Gifts, Travel and Family Relationships
Great Places for Boomers to Retire Overseas
Great Places to Retire in the United States
Health and Medical Topics for Baby Boomers
Money and Financial Planning for Retirement
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Photo of cemetery courtesy of www.morguefile.com