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How to protect the deceased estate from identity theft and fraud

Steve Weisman Attorney, professor and author Bentley University

Identity theft is a major problem that can not only cause you problems during your lifetime, but can even cause your family problems after your death. A clever identity thief can run up debt in the name of the deceased that can result in claims being made against the deceased’s estate thereby threatening and certainly delaying inheritances. Knowing how identity thieves steal the identities of dead people and what you need to do to prevent this form of identity theft is crucial.
 


Do

Do limit the information in the obituary

Identity thieves scan obituaries for people whose identities they can steal. Once they find a target, they go right to the Federal Death Master File which is a database maintained by the federal government that contains the name, Social Security number, date of birth, date of death and ZIP code of every American who has died since 1980. This database is available free to anyone. Because the Social Security number is the key to identity theft and is now readily available, the deceased is already at a disadvantage when it comes to combating identity theft. Limiting personal information in an obituary makes it more difficult for an identity thief to access the deceased’s accounts or open new accounts in the deceased’s name.

Do freeze the credit report

A person’s credit report is not automatically closed when that person dies because the credit reporting agencies will not receive notice until you notify them that the deceased has passed away. Therefore the first thing you should do is contact each of the three major credit reporting agencies and request that the deceased’s credit report be frozen by noting on it that the person is deceased and that no further credit should be issued. In order to accomplish this you will need to provide a copy of your appointment as personal representative of the deceased, a certified copy of the death certificate, the birth date of the deceased, the Social Security number of the deceased and the most recent address of the deceased.

Do be proactive - notify other entities with which the deceased had accounts

It is important to be proactive and to notify various entities with which the deceased was involved during his or lifetime of the passing of the deceased to make sure that an identity thief does not beat you to the punch. Therefore, you should notify credit card companies, banks, insurance companies, the Social Security Administration.

Do stop pre-approved credit card offers

Pre-approved credit card offers that people receive in the mail represents a serious identity theft threat even after death. In the hands of an identity thief, this information can be turned into a credit card that runs up debt in the name of the deceased. You can stop such pre-approved credit card offers by going on line to www.optoutprescreen.com and removing the deceased’s name from their mailing lists.

Do fail to respond if identity theft does occur

If despite your best efforts, your deceased family member does become a victim , make sure that you file a police report with the local police department because you will need that report in order to clear the accounts of the deceased from the fraudulent actions of the identity thief. Also, if you receive a collection letter for accounts opened or accessed by the identity thief, respond by requesting that the company investigate the purchases. Also indicate that the deceased was a victim of identity theft. Include a copy of the death certificate with your request.


Don't

Do not fail to respond if identity theft does occur

If despite your best efforts, your deceased family member does become a victim , make sure that you file a police report with the local police department because you will need that report in order to clear the accounts of the deceased from the fraudulent actions of the identity thief. Also, if you receive a collection letter for accounts opened or accessed by the identity thief, respond by requesting that the company investigate the purchases. Also indicate that the deceased was a victim of identity theft. Include a copy of the death certificate with your request.

Do not fail to neglect to gather and secure documents

It may take a village to raise a child, but it only takes small amounts of personal information for a deceased person to become a victim of identity theft so it is important following the death of a family member to gather and keep in a secure place all of the deceased’s personal papers that may have information that could be used to make the deceased a victim of identity theft. Medical records, the contents of the deceased’s wallet or purse, bank statements, brokerage account statements and other such documents should be promptly gathered and secured.

Do not fail to continue your monitoring of the assets of the deceased

The price of protection from identity theft is continuing vigilance. Even after you have taken all of the steps I have described earlier, it is important to monitor the credit reports of the deceased at each of the three major credit reporting bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion to make sure that identity theft has not occurred.

Do not delay settling the deceased’s outstanding debts

Pay all outstanding bills as soon as possible and then close the accounts. Any outstanding account can be accessed by an identity thief to run up bills in the name of the deceased.


Summary
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The threat of identity theft does not go away when a person dies. In fact, it increases and the harm that identity theft can cause even after death is significant, however, by limiting information in the obituary, securing information, freezing the deceased’s credit, monitoring the deceased’s credit report and acting promptly in the event of identity theft, damage can be avoided or minimized.
 


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Photo Credits: Credit Card Theft by Don Hankins via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Steve WeismanAttorney, professor and author

Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor at Bentley University and one of the country’s foremost authorities on scams and identity theft. Among his recent books is “50 Ways to Protect Your Identity in a Digital Age.” He also writes the ...

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