Collect evidence of "ghosting" identity theft by keeping your eyes open for irregular credit card activity and the arrival of collection notices, bills, or calls.
Contact the Federal Trade Commission and create a theft report.
Notify the police precinct for the area where your loved one lived and provide them with any evidence of the theft, along with a death certificate.
If you have any doubt about anything, consult a lawyer for advice.
To identity thieves, those who have recently passed away present a particular opportunity. The business of stealing and exploiting personal data like Social Security numbers to claim illegal tax refunds, go on credit card spending sprees, and pursue other forms of fraud marches on, regardless of your grief and your desire to preserve the honor of your loved one.
In the weeks and months of mourning and settling affairs that follow a loved one’s passing, there are a lot of things to consider. The theft of their identity—commonly known as ghosting—may rank low on your list. But it is something to look out for: The AARP estimates that some 2.5 million deceased Americans are victims of identity theft every year.
What are you to do, then, if you find signs that your loved one is among them?
Once you understand that this is such a common crime, you’ll be keeping your eyes open for irregular credit card activity, or the arrival of collection notices or calls related to new charges on your loved one’s accounts. These alerts will be your signal that an identity theft may have occurred, and since your loved one cannot defend themselves, it may fall to you to do so.
It is advisable to report the crime immediately. If that is too much to handle right now, ask someone to help you—another relative, the person’s executor, or an estate lawyer.
First, contact the Federal Trade Commission. Their website walks you through the steps of creating a theft report, which you will likely need as you contact the companies and institutions who mistakenly think your loved one owes them money. In many cases, this report can serve the same purpose as a police report, to be used in contesting charges and proving fraud.
Rest assured that neither your loved one nor their estate will be on the hook for this theft.
It may also be a good idea to call the police precinct for the area where your loved one lived to make a report. The police will likely ask you to come in person to file paperwork, and to bring any evidence of the theft, such as the collection notices or bills. The police will also need to see a death certificate to verify your allegation. Some precincts may require an original death certificate, while others will accept a copy.
Take a close look at the dates of charges on credit card statements to make sure that there has been no unaccounted-for activity taking place after the death of your loved one. If there is, bring along those statements as well. If you are in doubt about anything, consult a lawyer for advice.
While the crime is being investigated, alert those demanding payment from your loved one’s estate that fraud has been committed, and that the estate is not responsible for debts incurred. Provide them with copies of the theft report, when you have it, as well as any documentation supporting your case. Make sure to get all the particulars—dates, account numbers, amounts of supposed debt—from the credit issuer. Find out if they need you or someone else to fill out a fraud affidavit, and get all exchanges in writing so you have a paper trail, should you need it later. This should include confirmation that your loved one’s estate does not owe any money. Ask these companies to reverse the charges and to close any fraudulent accounts.
Rest assured that neither your loved one nor their estate will be on the hook for this theft. Always be sure to contact an estate lawyer and/or the National Conference of State Legislatures if you have state-specific questions related to identity theft. It can be a complicated issue and an onerous bureaucratic hassle, so make sure you take time to address it and understand your responsibilities and rights.
If you have not already done so, be sure to contact Experian, Equifax, and Transunion, the three main credit reporting agencies, to inform them that your loved one has passed away. It is best to send them a letter via certified mail, with a return receipt requested, alerting them and asking that they mark credit reports for your loved one with a “deceased alert.” Each agency is independent and may have specific procedures, so make sure you contact all three to find out if there is anything else you must do to ensure this alert is properly placed.
Be aware that only the person’s spouse or the executor of their estate is authorized to make this request. If you are neither, reach out to one of them to ask that they do so. They will have to include a copy of the death certificate and proof of marriage or executorship in their request.
While you are in touch with these agencies, order recent copies of your loved one’s credit reports to make sure you haven’t overlooked other accounts or institutions where identity theft might have taken place. If there are, contact these institutions and see to it that the charges are reversed and the accounts are closed.
Monitor your loved one's credit periodically in the months after their passing to make sure no new fraudulent activity pops up. In general, the burden of proving that identity theft has occurred falls on the victim. You will need to provide death certificates each time, so make sure you have plenty of them on hand.
In some cases, the perpetrator isn’t a random thief but someone close to you, who may have already known many of your loved one’s personal details. This can feel like a massive betrayal, but it is best to stay calm and avoid confronting the person directly.
If you think someone you know, rather than a stranger, has used your loved one’s personal information to commit identity theft, contact a lawyer to figure out how best to verify your suspicion and take further necessary steps.
Identity theft is a preventable crime that befalls many people. Correcting the record takes time, patience, and a hefty helping of bureaucracy. But once you have contacted the FTC, the police, and credit reporting agencies, much of your work is done, and you can focus instead on the things that really matter ●
Unfortunately this is a common problem: When a loved one dies, their identity can become a target for thieves. Luckily, there are a few preventative actions that you can take to minimize these risks, protect your loved one’s identity, and save you and your family a world of headache later on.