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How to Protect the Deceased’s Identity

April 02, 2017

When a family member or loved one dies, you will face a great deal of grief, sorrow, and other intense emotional repercussions. It can be incredibly difficult to even contemplate how to take care of practical matters during such a trying time. Unfortunately, you and other family members and friends will have to work through these practical issues to close out your loved one’s life—including taking steps to prevent identity theft.

Identity thieves prey on anyone who is vulnerable, including children, the elderly, and the newly deceased. In fact, thieves steal the identities of about 2.5 million deceased individuals every year, often swiping their personal information from funeral homes, hospitals, and obituaries.

In the days and weeks after this person’s death, there are several important steps you can take to protect their identity. Most of these steps depend on providing certified death certificates. These certificates can take a week or more to obtain, so start early and request multiple certificates, as copies are not always accepted. If a funeral director is involved, find out if they will help you order the death certificates; otherwise, you can order them from your state’s vital statistics office.

While you’re waiting for the death certificates, make a list of the deceased’s financial accounts, memberships, and major assets, such as:

  • Credit cards
  • Banks, credit unions, etc.
  • Stock brokers
  • Loan/lien holders
  • Mortgage companies
  • Social Security Administration
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • Home, health, auto, life, and other insurance companies
  • Veteran’s Administration
  • Immigration Services (if not a U.S. citizen)
  • Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Membership programs (library, fitness club, etc.)
  • Professional licenses (bar association, medical license, construction license, etc.)

You will need to notify each of those entities of this individual’s passing. Some, like a fitness club, will likely terminate the membership based on a simple phone call. Others, such as auto insurance policies, may require only a copy of the certified death certificate, which will help limit the number of official certificates you have to order.

For more critical organizations like financial institutions, it’s best to talk with each to determine their specific requirements. If you held joint accounts with this loved one, you will need to notify the company that the account needs to be listed in your name alone. If you prefer to close the account, ask them to list the account as “Closed. Account holder is deceased.” Financial institutions will likely require a certified death certificate to do this.

Another critical step is to contact each of the three main credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Look them up online or call them for detailed instructions, but in general you will need to provide the death certificate to each and request that the report be flagged with the following alert: “Deceased. Do not issue credit. If an application is made for credit, notify the following person(s) immediately: (list the next surviving relative, executor/trustee of the estate and/or local law enforcement agency- noting the relationship).”

When you notify the credit reporting agencies to place a deceased flag on their credit files, it’s also a good idea to request a copy of the credit report. The report will let you know of any active credit cards that still need to be closed, any pending collection notices, and any questionable activity in recent weeks.

Finally, sometimes the most important steps to protect identities are the obvious ones. Don’t put too much personal information, such as birth date and mother’s maiden name, in obituaries, funeral notices, or social media announcements. If you have children, even adult children, be aware that a parent’s obituary can provide information that can compromise their identity as well, such as mother’s maiden name. And avoid giving away your loved one’s Social Security number and other private information to anyone you don’t know or trust.

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