These days, aNyone> with a pulse is susceptible to identity theft. And in many cases, a pulse is optional.
There s a huge point of vulnerability when someone dies, says Adam Levin, co-founder and chairman of Identity Theft 911, a provider of identity-theft prevention and resolution services.
A posthumous identity theft can weigh heavily on the family of the victim. Coping with the loss of a loved one can be difficult, and sorting through a pile of bills that may or may not be legitimately payable by the estate will not soften the grief.
The authorities are doing their part. The Social Security Administration, local Department of Motor Vehicles and credit bureaus register a death as soon as they re informed. The Social Security Administration s Death Master file includes the names and Social Security numbers of all deceased individuals. The credit bureaus use the file to update their records periodically, as do DMVs throughout the country.
However, it may take days, weeks or months after a person dies for authorities to include a new death in their databases. Until then, criminals have free reign to open credit cards, get state identification cards and apply for a job using a dead person s identity, says Jay Foley, the executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization. And although each organization keeps a record of deceased individuals, their databases don t always overlap, Foley says.
Danica Ross, a spokeswoman for Experian, says the credit bureau routinely collects Social Security numbers of the deceased as reported by the Social Security Administration. However, the Social Security Administration can only report a number as deceased if they are notified and in many cases they are not notified, she says.
If the person who died never worked or received Social Security benefits or if a surviving family member becomes eligible for a benefit after the death, then the SSA may not be informed about it, says ITRC s Foley.
The SSA receives about 2.5 million reports of death each year, spokesman Mark Lassiter wrote in an email. These reports come from a variety of sources, including family members, funeral homes, hospitals, financial institutions, the U.S. Postal Service, Medicare, Veterans Affairs and other state and federal agencies. This means the SSA receives death reports for people who are not necessarily Social Security beneficiaries. That is not to suggest that every death is reported, but the vast majority are, Lassiter wrote.
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators did not return calls seeking comment.
If you want to secure the identity of a deceased family member or friend, you re better off informing all authorities about their death, so crooks cannot take advantage of your family s loss. Here are eight steps to locking a loved one s identity:
1. Get multiple copies of the death certificate. Most authorities request one to reflect the death in their records.
2. Request a copy of the deceased individual s credit report from each of the three credit bureaus. The requirements to obtain it may differ according to the bureau, so call them in advance to find out. For example, Equifax requests a copy of the death certificate, a letter of testamentary from the probate court and a copy of a photo ID of the individual receiving the credit report.
3. On the letter you send to the credit bureaus, request that the deceased person s credit file be suppressed. This means that an annotation will be added to their file stating that the person is deceased and that no one will be able to obtain credit in the person s name, says Identity Theft 911 s Levin.
4. Notify all creditors of the person s death by sending a copy of the death certificate. (Get a list of creditors from the person s credit reports.)
5. Call the Social Security Administration and request a benefits statement for review. This will help ensure that no one is using your relative s name or Social Security number to work, Levin says.
6. Cancel their driver s license and any other group membership or affiliation that offers an identification card, such as their AAA membership or health insurance (or Medicare/ Medicaid).
7. Make sure all documents that contain the SSN of the deceased person are securely stored.
8. Don t share too many details about your loved one in any public announcement of their death. Crooks often comb through obituaries for information that could help inform their efforts to steal a person s identity, Levin says.