Scammers Can Steal a Deceased Person’s Identity, Too
When an elderly woman from Georgia lost her husband, it never occurred to her that he could become a target for identity fraud.[*]
But just two days after he died, identity thieves scrounged pieces of information from her husband’s obituary to redirect his mail. From there, they fraudulently opened up new lines of credit in the deceased person's name.
Identity theft is the last thing on a person’s mind while grieving a loved one and preparing for a funeral. But some criminals see this vulnerable window of time as the perfect opportunity to steal a deceased person's identity.
What Is Ghosting? How Does It Unfold?
Ghosting is a type of identity theft that involves stealing a person’s identity after they have passed away. Perpetrators collect ferret around obituaries for personal information of the deceased such as:
- Full name of the deceased
- Date of birth and date of death
- Place of birth and place of death
- Home address
- Cell phone number
- Email address
- Education history
- Employment history
- Military service history
- Names of family members and relationships
- Funeral or memorial service information
This information can be used by identity thieves to establish new accounts or lines of credit in the name of the deceased, or to impersonate the deceased in other ways. Bereavement scams take advantage of grieving individuals by contacting them with an offer or request that seems plausibly related to the death of a family member.
Once scammers have your attention, they’ll use the sensitive nature of the event to steal as much information as possible for:
- Funeral assistance scams
- Outstanding debt
- Medicare scams
- Tax fraud
- Romance and/or compassion scams
- Delinquent life insurance plans
- Credit scams
1. Funeral assistance scams
Governmental assistance for funeral costs is sometimes available in special circumstances (most recently, in the case of individuals who passed away from COVID-19). Scammers reach out purporting to be from government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and offer made-up refunds or funeral assistance.
2. Outstanding debt
Scammers use the information they find in obituaries and death announcements to contact the deceased person's family members. From there, they claim that the deceased owes a large amount of money that must be paid immediately. Family members are pressured into paying the scammer to cover these fake bills.
3. Medicare scams
Scammers use a person’s death as an opportunity to contact family members about the deceased person's Medicare plan. Posing as government workers, scammers request information like the decedent’s Social Security number (SSN), date of birth, and more. In reality, the scammer is looking to profit off Medicare and identity fraud.
4. Tax fraud
Fraudsters contact bereaved family members and pose as IRS (Internal Revenue Service) agents. They use the deceased person's information to commit tax fraud or to extort the bereaved by claiming that the decedent left behind outstanding IRS payments.
5. Romance and/or compassion scams
Establishing an emotional connection is one of the most effective strategies in a scammer’s tool belt. Romance scammers target surviving spouses in an attempt to charm them into romantic relationships. Then, they manipulate the unsuspecting widow or widower into sharing sensitive information.
📚 Related: Understanding Spousal Identity Theft and How It Happens →
6. Delinquent life insurance plans
Scammers contact a bereaved family member and claim there’s a generous payout included in the deceased person's supposed life insurance policy. But first, the scammers extract personally identifiable information (PII) and request payments from the family for “outstanding premiums.”
7. Credit scams
With enough information, scammers can use your loved one’s identity to open up new lines of credit, apply for loans, and rack up all kinds of unlawful charges by posing as the account holder.
All this can go unnoticed by grieving family members, who don’t always think to check the deceased person's credit report.
To Protect a Deceased Person’s Identity, Do This
Leave sensitive information out of the obituary
Obituaries and death notices are lucrative prowling grounds for identity thieves. Be sure to omit sensitive details like birthplace, address, date of birth, middle name, and mother’s maiden name. Also consider excluding the names of any survivors to avoid being targeted by criminals.
📚 Related: How To Identify a Medicare Scam Call: 7 Scams To Watch Out For →
Obtain copies of the death certificate
Once your loved one passes away, it’s important to have the death recorded in the books as soon as possible. The first pieces of documentation that you will need to procure are multiple copies of the death certificate. You can do this by visiting your local Vital Records office.
Alert all major credit reporting agencies
Notify any one of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) about your deceased family member.
The reporting agency will place a “deceased” notice on the report, which works as a permanent freeze and prevents fraudsters from getting credit by posing as the deceased individual.
📚 Related: What Is Credit Protection? Are You Making the Most of It? →
Monitor credit reports regularly
Make sure there is no activity on the deceased person's credit report. Set reminders to check it regularly, or sign up for a credit monitoring service that will deliver regular credit account updates.
Identify any outstanding debts
Many bereavement scams catch grieving families off guard by claiming that the deceased owes money.
Shield yourself from this scare tactic by familiarizing yourself with your loved one’s financial background. Make sure you’re aware of any unsettled debt that your family member may have left behind.
Notify financial institutions
Contact banks, credit unions, credit card companies, and other financial institutions that hold accounts in your loved one’s name, and notify those companies of your family member’s death.
This way, the system can flag any attempts to use the deceased person's identity via their financial accounts.
📚 Related: How To Protect Your Bank Account From Identity Theft [NEW] →
Contact home, auto, mortgage, and life insurance companies
Update any insurance accounts or policies in the deceased person's name. Elderly homeowners over the age of 62, for example, are eligible for a tax-free line of credit based on their property’s value. Identity thieves can apply for such reverse mortgages in the deceased’s name.
Alert the IRS and file any remaining tax returns
The individual income tax filing process remains the same before and after death. To prevent the identity theft of a deceased person, the IRS requires that you send a copy of the death certificate along with the decedent’s final returns.
- Submit an IRS Form 4506-T to verify the decedent’s income documents.
- Eligible survivors can also claim the decedent’s refunds with Form 1310.
Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA)
Be sure to provide the SSA with a death certificate and date of death. This service is sometimes provided by funeral homes, but it’s a good idea to complete this step yourself so that you can be sure it’s been done promptly.
Send a notice to the Veterans Administration (VA)
The VA collects a significant amount of personal identification and dispenses various kinds of payouts and benefits to veterans. These two functions make the VA a potential gold mine for fraudsters. If the deceased served in the military, contact the VA before too much time goes by.
Alert the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
A driver’s license is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to a fabricated or stolen identity.
In those states in which the office of Vital Records doesn’t inform the DMV about the license holder’s death, you may need to cancel the ID manually. The DMV lets you terminate licenses as a walk-in or by mail with these documents:
- A request to cancel the decedent’s driver’s license
- A certified copy of the death certificate
- The decedent’s original driver’s license
What To Do If You Suspect Fraud or Identity Theft
If you spot any red flags that point to identity fraud, here are some actions that you can take right away:
- File an Identity Theft Report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). You can do this by filling out a form on identitytheft.gov or by calling 877-382-4357. Report any funeral scams to FEMA on their helpline at 800-621-3362.
- Verify Social Security Administration records. The SSA’s death records should be updated within a few weeks of the death, but system delays can push it back to a month. Confirm the death is on record to prevent future fraud. You can call the SSA at 800-772-1213.
- Request a deceased alert. Contact one of the main credit bureaus and provide copies of the death certificate. This will add a death notice across their reports, which prevents criminals from damaging your loved one’s credit.
- Reach out to the police. Identity thieves often commit crimes using a stolen identity so that their own criminal records appear to remain clean. If you notice any suspicious activity, touch base with law enforcement to expunge any potential charges that a fraudster may have racked up in the deceased person's name.
- Check medical records. Examine the deceased person's medical records for errors. If you do identify anything suspicious, contact the corresponding health agency immediately.
- Monitor (or close) all active accounts in the deceased person's name. This includes email, social media, and bank accounts. If you share any accounts with the deceased, you can remove their name and information from the account.
- If you suspect other online fraud has occurred in the deceased’s name, contact the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.
Don’t Let Obit-Scouring Swindlers Outwit You. Aura Can Help
Bereavement scams are especially attractive to scammers because their victims — the deceased person and surviving family members — are defenseless. Scammers may attempt to defraud beneficiaries by making solicitations as government imposters or even clairvoyants.
Here’s where an identity theft protection service like Aura can help. Opt in for built-in monitoring of all your financial transactions, credit score reports, and personal information.
Protect your family’s accounts, receive fast alerts, and round-the-clock customer support to keep your sensitive data safe.