identity theft of a deceased family member

Stop Identity Theft of a Deceased Family Member

I’ve just visited the fountain of youth. Have you ever had one of those experiences where you meet a person or a group of people that renews your faith in all that’s good in the world? I delivered a speech on identity theft prevention to AARP South Carolina (a chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons – an amazing organization that you should be part of if you are over 50) yesterday morning, and met a group that actually makes me look forward to growing up. Doris, Barb, Leigh Ann, Patrick, Lynda, Bill, Ridge, Charlie, Emily (I could name 50 more)… these are the people that greeted me like I was part of their family and treated me like someone special. They are some of the youngest spirits I’ve ever met. And I learned a great deal from them…

AARP had asked me to speak at their annual meeting as a thank you to their incredibly dedicated core of volunteers. These are people who put their muscle where their mouth is. And they paid attention and were so engaged that it was like giving a motivational identity theft speech. They inspired me! They must have had fifty additional great questions after the presentation that I didn’t have time to answer because they were headed into additional sessions. Given that, I’d like to take a few minutes to address a few of the items that pertain specifically to identity theft prevention for retirees and people over 50. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let me point you to the resources on identity theft prevention that AARP provides on their website. They are extensive and geared to the retiree population.

But I want to elaborate on a question that one member of the audience brought up after the speech: identity theft of a deceased family member. This has to be one of the most callous, horrific forms of identity theft. Here a spouse is having to deal with the loss of their soul mate and a criminal takes advantage of their distraction and grief to profit from the deceased’s identity. Here are 5 steps to take after a loved-one has passed away to make sure that their identity rests in peace:

  1. Short Obituaries. Make sure that you don’t include too much identifying information when you write the obituary. Identity thieves use this information (mother’s maiden name, address, ancestry, occupation, birth date, death date) to set up new accounts, licenses, etc. in the deceased person’s name. It is important to honor the person, just don’t give away all of their personal information.
  2. Protect Death Certificates. Guard the death certificate like you would a birth certificate or other piece of identity. You will need to fax this document to certain organizations in order to prove that your family member is deceased, but only send it to trusted institutions who absolutely won’t take the name off of the account without it. When you are done with the death certificate, store the original and all copies in your SentrySafe where you keep other identity documents. Be forewarned that for securities sake, many organizations are requiring an original copy of the death certificate as proof, so ask for 10-12 originals copies when you request the death certificate.
  3. Notify Credit Bureaus. Immediately notify the three credit reporting bureaus that your family member has passed away. Request that the credit report is flagged with the note: Deceased, Do Not Issue Credit. Request a copy of the decedent’s credit report so that you will have a list of all of the accounts you need to modify/close (see Step 4). The procedure varies by credit burea, so the numbers to contact them are as follows: Experian – 888-397-3742; Equifax – 888-766-0008; TransUnion – 800-680-7289. Don’t wait for the Social Security Administration to notify the credit bureaus – it takes them too long! And make sure to log all correspondence and conversations and send documents via certified mail so that you have proof of delivery, should you ever need to dispute a claim of non-receipt.
  4. Notify Financial Institutions. Notify all banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, stock brokers, mortgage companies, loan/lien holders, etc. about the death of your family member (if it was a joint account OR an account under their name). The executor or surviving spouse will need to resolve all outstanding debts and how they will be dealt with before the account can be closed or the deceased person’s name is removed from the account. Also notify the Social Security Administration, Veteran’s Administration, Department of Motor Vehicles, professional license associations (Bar Association), membership programs (Costco, Sam’s, Blockbuster, etc.) and any creditors or collection agencies with which the deceased had an account or membership. This is a difficult time to put in all of the work to protect an identity that should be left alone; but the current reality is that the identities of deceased individuals are easier to steal and abuse than those of the living.
  5. Share Wisely with Family Members. Unfortunately, many cases of deceased identity theft are committed by a member of the deceased’s family. It might be a relative who is in financial trouble, a friend who has a costly addiction or a child that feels he or she was wronged in the will or estate planning. For that reason, the identifying information of a deceased family member should be kept to as small a circle as possible. It seems to work best when one family member is the point-person for collection of documents, closing of accounts, checking of credit, etc. Generally this is someone other than the person who organizes all of the other events that surround the death of a loved one.

This is a heavy topic on the heels of such a wonderful encounter in South Carolina. But as any one who has survived the death of a spouse knows, the responsibility and respect for that person continue long past the date of their death. I hope that these suggestions make that burden/blessing a little bit easier.

John Sileo is an an award-winning author and keynote speaker on identity theft and cybersecurity. John specializes in making security entertaining, so that it works. John is CEO of The Sileo Group, whose clients include the Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security & Pfizer. John’s body of work includes appearances on 60 Minutes, Rachael Ray, Anderson Cooper & Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.

19 replies
  1. Barb Keeton
    Barb Keeton says:

    Hi John,

    What a wonderful and enlightening time AARP South Carolina had with your ID theft talk and with your laughter. I was one of the Blue Thong girls you had dinner with and we loved your company. I have instituted your suggestions from both your talk and your book and so has my husband. I will be sharing all this info with other family members and friends.

    Isn’t it wonderful to realize that as we age we only get BETTER! More full of life! No more pretenses just pure honest joy of life and a wealth of knowledge. More young people need to realize how much they can learn from us ‘SEXY SENIOR CITIZENS!”

    Blessings to you and your family and I and my friends look forward to hopefully, your visit to our hometown in the Upstate of South Carolina :)

    Thank you for you !


  2. Susan
    Susan says:

    Hi John,
    I just happened to come across this blog, and wanted to ask: What if you suspect the executor of the estate of commiting fraud? (ie mother dies, the executor (in this case the daughter) accumulates debt/obtains credit in deceased name). What can another sibling do to end the deceit?

  3. John Sileo
    John Sileo says:

    The first step would be to contact the three credit reporting bureaus to let them know about the death. You will have to send documentation to prove your claim, but this will freeze any further activity on the credit file. It is always sticky when it’s a family member because the law isn’t willing to do much unless you are willing to press charges. A bad situation either way you look at it. But you can shut down the credit and the pertinent financial accounts so that there is nothing left to steal.


  4. Gil Olivarria
    Gil Olivarria says:

    John, good info. on reporting the death of a relative to the credit bureaus, bad info. on the law not doing much unless she is willing to press charges, she is not the victim, the victims are the entities that issued the credit in the deceased person’s name & credit history. Susan should contact the fraud/identity theft division of her local law enforcement agency and report the fraud. As a retired C.O.P. & fraud investigator I know most agencies/district attorney’s won’t prosecute unless the loss is substantial, however it’s still a crime & they want to know who’s committing crimes.
    BTW, once a death certificate is issued, it is entered in the state data banks, eventually the credit bureaus & government agencies, i.e. Social Security will pick up the death, however it may take several months.

  5. Information Security Program
    Information Security Program says:

    The information about criminals going through obituaries was interesting and at the same time I was taken aback. Since Im not a criminal it always surprises me the depths they will go to. Thank you for the post

  6. Joelynn
    Joelynn says:

    What a great site and informative posts, I will add a backlink – and bookmark this site? Regards, Reader.

  7. AZ
    AZ says:

    We are in Canada and my family looks in on an elderly lady family friend who has no other real friends or family. Recently, she got letters in the mail from an out-of-town auto dealership, addressed to her husband, thanking him for his purchase of a $6000 tractor. The problem? She is a widow, and her husband has been dead over 5 years! Someone stole his identity, got a credit card in his name and is charging stuff.
    She is elderly and has problems speaking english, seeing and hearing. The police came to visit her about this but she didnt take the officer’s business card or badge number so we dont know who to follow up with or where to even start to address this. She is also fiercely independent, doesnt want to “be a bother” and get our help.. So can we even force our help on her? I am very concerned that the criminal is still out there with her husband’s credit card and can be purchasing other items, and endangering her credit rating, or even herself personally…

    Any advice would sure be appreciated!

  8. Credit Bureau Report
    Credit Bureau Report says:

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  9. margaret parkhurst
    margaret parkhurst says:

    What about the case where both my parents have been dead for several years? Why should I care if someone steals their identity? I see no reason to be careful in discarding their old tax returns, bank records, etc. that they saved for decades.

  10. Bruce Curtis
    Bruce Curtis says:

    I love this blog. Thanks for the great information. I have it bookmarked and will be back.

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  13. alfred john jones
    alfred john jones says:

    Hi John
    in the uk your birth and death certificate are public records so they can be sold to anyone.i have been campaigning for 5 years to have deceased marked on a dead childs certificate so it cannot be used in an act of fraud.i have a facebook campaign going on log on to stop identity theft of childrens birth certificates.
    Cheers Alfred John Jones

  14. Susan filice
    Susan filice says:

    I did what Gil advised in the town my father lived. They didn’t do anything. It has been now 4 years since my father passed and there are still outstanding liens on his credit due to this person…family member who also committed elder financial abuse, got him to change his trust making her executor at the last minute and we strongly feel manipulated his melds while he was under hospice care so that when we tried to visit, he was “in a coma” that day. Yet this person started a business back in Tennessee has never followed the trust, and is non- responsive to requests from attorneys, or family. Seems like there isn’t any justice for people. She should be in jail.

  15. Crystal
    Crystal says:

    I just discovered on Truth Finder that my deceased mom’s identity has been stolen. Even her date of death is erased. I don’t know what to do. Where do I start?

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