Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy. While loss is a natural part of life and we may expect it, death often overwhelms us with shock, depression and confusion. Sadly, when you’re in this vulnerable state, there are identity thieves looking to prey on your dulled awareness. They do so by stealing the identity of the deceased and fraudulently opening credit card accounts, applying for loans and obtaining service contracts.
This concept, sometimes called “ghosting,” is a widespread problem. There hasn’t been a lot of research on the issue, but one study estimates the identities of approximately 2.5 million deceased Americans are used fraudulently each year. Of those, almost 800,000 are deliberately targeted cases.
Why it’s important to freeze someone’s credit after they die
Many identity thieves are practiced in using the dead’s information for their own financial gain. Criminals who deliberately target the departed know that it takes time for financial organizations and credit reporting agencies to process death notices and update their records, leaving open a window of opportunity for fraud.
Following the 2017 Equifax breach, people may be more aware of their credit situation than in the past. However, a survey taken shortly after the breach by CompareCards.com (which, like MagnifyMoney, is a subsidiary of LendingTree) shows that approximately 78% of people did not freeze their credit after the breach. People are largely aware of the negative impact that identity theft can have, but a large portion of the American population neglects to take the next steps necessary to protect themselves.
Luckily, the steps to take to protect your loved one’s identity are clear and relatively simple to follow.
How to report a death to the credit bureaus
The Social Security Administration (SSA) states that, in most cases, the funeral director will notify the administration of a person’s death. To ensure this, you must give the deceased’s Social Security number to the funeral director. From there, credit reporting agencies and lenders will be informed of the person’s passing, and they’ll automatically put a death notice or alert on their credit.
To expedite the process, it is suggested that loved ones who are close to the deceased (typically a spouse or child) take matters into their own hands to get a death notice placed on their departed family member’s credit reports at the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. This will involve submitting a death certificate, and the Identity Theft Resource center recommends requesting 12 copies of the certificate for such purposes (some institutions may require an original, rather than a photocopy).
Carrie Kerskie, an identity theft expert and director of the Identity Fraud Institute at Hodges University, says you should contact the credit bureaus, but knowing the right verbiage is key. “Instead of requesting a freeze, one would request a death alert,” she said. “It is similar to a freeze, except a freeze could be lifted with a PIN. A death alert cannot.”
The easiest way to update that person’s credit account is to have a relative or executor send letters to each of the three credit national reporting agencies.
The writer should include the following information about the deceased in their letter:
- Legal name
- Social Security number
- Date of birth
- Date of death
- Copy of death certificate or letters testamentary
They’ll also want to include:
- The letter-writer or executor’s full name
- Their address for sending final confirmation
- Proof you’re the executor, if applicable
David Blumberg, director of public relations for TransUnion, said, “Our industry policy is that the receiving credit reporting company will notify the other two, so they can update their records as well.”
Still, to be safe, mail this information to each of the three credit reporting agencies. Their mailing addresses are:
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016
P.O. Box 2002
Allen, TX 75013
P.O. Box 105139
Atlanta, GA 30348-5139
Kerskie advises that people going through this process prepare to provide proof of relationship along with the death certificate they’re submitting. “This could be a marriage license or court papers,” she said.
What’s the fastest option?
When speed is of the essence in beating potential fraudsters, mailing is certainly not your fastest option. Experian offers a solution: Submit the death certificate and death notice request online by uploading the documents directly to its system. Once it receives the information, Experian will add the deceased indicator and permanently remove the person’s name from any future mailing lists for preapproved offers.
Equifax also offers two speedier options – email a copy of the death certificate to [email protected] or fax your records to (888) 826-0727. It should be noted that email isn’t a secure way to submit this personal information (especially in light of the fact that you’re working to prevent identity theft).
While TransUnion doesn’t have a streamlined online tool or fax offering, they do advise family members or executors to call (800) 680-7289 for more assistance. If you need any help requesting that a death alert be placed on a deceased’s account, your first action should be to contact the bureaus directly.
Other things to do besides reporting the death
Although going through the process of contacting credit reporting agencies may seem like a hassle, your to-do list doesn’t end here. In addition to notifying the credit bureaus of the death, you should also request a copy of the person’s credit report. The Identity Theft Resource Center provides a form you can use to request the reports. This will help you to better understand what accounts are open, and it can help you spot suspicious activity. Should you face the worst-case scenario and your loved one’s identity is stolen, this will also help you to prove any charges the thieves incur.
Additionally, while it’s common for funeral directors to assist you in reporting a loved one’s death to the Social Security Administration, it behooves you to ensure this has been done. The easiest way to contact the SSA is online, but you can also call them toll-free at (800) 772-1213 or at their TTY number, (800) 325-0778.
Other items for your list:
- Be proactive and let the deceased’s various financial institutions and account holders know about their death. Reach out to banks, insurers, brokerages, lenders, mortgage companies and credit card companies by mailing them copies of the death certificate. Kerskie recommends sending these items by certified mail and requesting a return receipt to ensure the safety of the personal information you’re sending.
- Limit the amount of personal information released to the public. Identity thieves often gain access through obituaries that list dates of birth, death, full legal names and addresses.
- Consider changing the deceased’s address to forward to another loved one’s home or an executor’s place of business. Identity thieves sometimes steal personal information out of a deceased person’s mail box.
- Don’t forget to file the deceased’s final tax return.
How to resolve identity theft of a deceased person
Resolving identity theft of a deceased person follows many of the same steps you would proactively take to prevent it: Request a copy of the credit reports from the three major credit bureaus, request a death notice on that person’s credit and notify creditors of the person’s death. If fraud has occurred, there’s an extra step: The Identity Theft Resource Center advises you to contact the police in the jurisdiction of the deceased with evidence of fraud. This might be a collection notice you’ve received on the deceased’s behalf, or a credit report showing fraudulent activity.
It’s important to remember that you should not be held accountable for fraudulent debt that’s racked up in the name of your deceased relative. While this may not provide any emotional consolation as you’re going through this process, it should help to relieve some of the money-related stress you’re experiencing.