Ghosts walk among us and they have credit cards
They’re not real ghosts, but sadly it’s true that thieves are able to steal the credit of people who are gone. They open accounts, run up bills, and get away with it for a while. That’s called ghosting. According to security firm ID Analytics, 2.5 million people every year are running up charges after they are deceased.
While Aunt Sally may have passed on, as far as creditors know she’s out shopping for designer boots or high-rolling in a Las Vegas casino. And you may not find out about it `til collectors come looking for payment from Aunt Sally. That’s why it’s critical to remain vigilant even though your loved one is gone, or deal with the headaches of identity theft while you’re still grieving. More importantly, if someone — a surviving spouse, or adult child, for instance — shared credit with Aunt Sally, that person will be directly impacted if identity theft occurs.
Protecting the credit of the deceased will take some doing, but in the end protection will be far less hassle than trying to untangle a web of fraudulent charges.
How does this theft happen?
Some thieves have “friends” on the inside at funeral homes, hospitals, nursing homes, and elsewhere where they can steal or buy personal information, including copies of death certificates. Death certificates include details such as the date and place of birth, mother’s maiden name, and in some states, even the Social Security number (SSN) appears on the certificate. But even without the SSN, a thief who can collect enough such details can piece together a treasure trove of information that allows him to open credit accounts in the name of the deceased.
For a time, thieves were able to access SSNs through the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. That has now been made unavailable to the public. Another source of information has been genealogy websites. One man was able to glean enough from such sites that he filed fraudulent state tax returns on deceased individuals in 17 states. He was clever, but not clever enough to avoid an 8.5 year prison term.
The moral of this story is, you may love genealogy websites, but think twice about what information you post there.
Keep the obituary simple
You also need to be careful what you write in an obituary, warns the IRS. You may feel like you’re writing a nice tribute with a long, detailed obituary, but scammers see those details as payday. They comb obituaries for information such as: home address, birth date and place, mother’s maiden name, the workplace, military service.
These details may be enough for a thief to get the deceased individual’s SSN and clean out existing accounts, open other accounts, and possibly apply for veterans’ benefits or other government benefits, all in the name of your loved one. And the thief never even has to crawl out from under his rock to do it.
Also, don’t reveal whether the deceased lived alone. A thief might envision an empty house, ripe for a home invasion. If this is the case, be sure the home appears to be inhabited until you sell it or make other arrangements.
Consumer Reports says within 10 days of the death you should ask the funeral home for at least a dozen copies of the death certificate. You’ll need to send copies to many agencies, so make a list before requesting copies.
Here are several places you may need to include on your list:
1. The Social Security Administration (SSA). Let them know by phone of the death, at 1-
800-772-1213. Benefits the deceased was receiving should stop, but if they don’t, the SSA comes after you for wrongful payments.
2. Your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. This should help prevent fraudulent applications for ID.
3. The IRS at 1-800-829-1040. Alerting them of the death may halt attempts to file false tax returns in the deceased’s name. As soon as you can, file the tax return for the deceased. If you are the executor, trustee or fiduciary for the deceased, file Form 56 and mail it to the IRS. This notifies the agency that you are the responsible party and tell them how to contact you. This is especially important if you live at a different address from the deceased. You can find Form 56 at IRS.gov or ask your accountant.
Also send copies of the death certificate to these companies so they can flag the deceased’s account in case of fraudulent activity:
• Creditors of the deceased.
• Banks and investment firms.
• Pension plans.
• Life insurance carriers.
• Credit bureaus (see sidebar).
• A credit monitoring service, if the deceased had one. Generally they will watch the account rather than closing it right away. Closing it would make it harder to detect fraud attempts.
By now, you may be tired just reading about what you need to do. Nobody said this would be easy, but keeping a close watch is easier than untangling the disaster caused by identity theft. Thieves are counting on you to not pay attention.
Contact numbers for credit bureaus
It’s important to call all three.
• Equifax 1-800-525-6285
• Experian 1-888-397-3742
• Transunion 1-800-680-7289
Not only should you contact them to let them know your loved one is deceased, but a few weeks after the death, order copies of credit reports on him or her. When they arrive, check them carefully for suspicious activity.