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Legacy Matters
BlogsPublications | July 2, 2024
5 minute read
Legacy Matters

12 Steps for Avoiding Identity Theft After the Death of a Loved One

Recently, I attended the 2024 Summer Meeting for the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC) in Toronto. While there I presented to ACTEC’s Digital Property Committee on ghost hacking. Ghost hacking is when a decedent’s identity is stolen after the individual’s death and used for a variety of nefarious purposes.

High points of the information I shared with the ACTEC group are below.

Crimes Against Deceased Loved Ones

It used to be that the main crime against deceased people was burglarizing their homes while the family attended the funeral. Now, identity theft is a common fraud against the deceased and often involves obtaining access to email accounts and the decedent’s Social Security number. With this and other publicly available information, they can request a duplicate driver’s license, access accounts at financial institutions, apply for loans in the decedent’s name, open credit card accounts and file false tax returns in the name of the deceased to claim tax refunds to which they and the decedent are not entitled.

One of the means for accessing a decedent’s assets at financial institutions starts with filing a change of address order to reroute the deceased’s mail to the fraudster – providing them with access to the account numbers contained in credit card bills and monthly banking/investment statements, and possibly even allowing them to receive the death certificate instead of you.

12 Steps to Prevent Post-death Identity Theft

It is better to take steps, such as the ones below, that can block fraudsters up front than to deal with and clean up problems later.

  1. Restrict the information you publish in the obituary.
    • Identity thieves read the obituaries and look for a birth date, city of birth, mother’s maiden name, schools attended and other information that can be useful to steal an identity or answer security questions and access online accounts. Better to leave out this information, especially in online obituaries.
  2. Have the death certificate (which contains the decedent’s Social Security number) sent to the funeral home or to a trustworthy family member’s address to prevent its theft if the deceased’s mail is fraudulently forwarded.

  3. Promptly notify the national credit bureaus of the death to prevent the opening of new credit lines.
    • Call each credit bureau to notify them of the death and ask for a credit freeze. Request instructions for placing a deceased notice on the individual’s account and send each bureau a copy of the death certificate and other required information (use certified mail with a return receipt).
  4. The estate settlement process typically requires opening new accounts in the name of the estate or trust using a new taxpayer identification number. Doing this promptly, and then immediately moving financial assets to the new accounts and under the control of the fiduciary, puts the assets beyond the reach of fraudsters who relied on hacked information and forwarded mail. This minimizes the amount of time assets are vulnerable to fraud attempts using a deceased’s stolen information.

  5. Remove the deceased’s name from any joint accounts as soon as possible.

  6. Cancel/close accounts that are not joint accounts.
    • When you notify credit card companies, banks, investment/retirement account providers, insurance providers and other companies where the deceased had accounts, have these accounts marked as ”Deceased” when they are closed to prevent reopening by a fraudster.
  7. Cancel the deceased’s driver’s license or state ID card so thieves cannot request a duplicate.

  8. The fiduciary settling the estate (personal representative or trustee) should arrange to have the mail forwarded to the fiduciary as soon as possible. Note that the fiduciary will need a death certificate and evidence of their authority to act to do so.

  9. If you do not see mail that should be arriving for the deceased, such as statements for financial accounts, check with the post office to determine if an unauthorized mail hold or forwarding order was put in place.

  10. Notify professional service providers such as attorneys, accountants, investment advisors and doctors.

  11. Notify other organizations as needed, such as: Veteran’s Administration, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (if deceased was not a citizen), Social Security Administration (if your funeral home did not do this) and professional licensing organizations.

  12. If the deceased lived alone and the property will be vacant for a time, take some steps to prevent issues from theft, property damage or squatters:
    • Update the property’s insurance to reflect the new owner’s name and the property’s vacant status. Note: you may have to switch insurance companies in order to insure a vacant property.
    • Remove high-value and irreplaceable items and secure the windows, doors, garage doors and outbuildings of vacant property with high-quality locks and bars.
    • Set some lights on timers and do whatever else you can to make it look as though someone is living at the property (e.g., park cars in the driveway, have someone doing yardwork occasionally, post a “Beware of Dog” sign, etc.).
    • If possible, add a security system, cameras or at least motion-sensing lights and alarms at the property to alert you to possible trespassers.
    • Visit the property regularly or arrange for someone you trust to have eyes on it.
    • If the property is for sale, do not allow the realtor to use a lockbox with a key in it.
    • If your county Register of Deeds offers a service to notify property owners of any transfers of interest in the property, arrange to have notices sent to the fiduciary to enable them to act quickly if someone attempts to mortgage the property or transfer the title fraudulently.

Take Action to Prevent Post-death Fraud

A little knowledge and some quick action can go a long way toward preventing theft and fraud attempts during your time of grief. Contact your Warner attorney or a member of Warner’s Trusts and Estates Practice Group to help you wrap up your loved one’s final affairs safely.