How to protect a deceased parent’s identity

by Brian Acton
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How to protect a deceased parent’s identity

Ghosting is a threat to more than just your dating app-addicted friends. If your parent(s) recently passed away, you should know that not even death can fully protect them from identity theft. Also known as ghosting, deceased identity theft occurs when a dead person’s information is used to commit fraud.

According to fraud solutions company ID Analytics, the Social Security numbers of deceased people are at nine times greater risk for fraud than the living. Personally identifiable information and SSNs can be used to file fraudulent tax returns, open credit cards and take out loans, commit medical identity theft and more. Ghosting can go undiscovered for a long time, as the dead don’t monitor their credit.

Criminals can illegally obtain data from hospitals or funeral homes, said Robert Siciliano, a security expert, and private investigator, and partner at Protect Now. They may also troll obituaries for key pieces of information.

With a few proactive steps, you can help protect your parent’s identity after they pass.

How to prevent ghosting

The executor of your parent’s estate is responsible for many of the actions that prevent ghosting, but other family members should still support those efforts. Your responsibilities depend on your role in handling your parent’s affairs, but you can at minimum encourage the efforts.

Protecting your parent’s identity comes down to two things: guarding their information and making sure everyone knows they have passed away. One tactic of ghosting is to read through obituaries for helpful bits of personal information. Avoid putting birth dates and addresses in the obituary. Focus on your parent’s life and personality, without giving out anything that would be overly helpful to criminals.

Notify the Social Security Administration

Funeral homes usually notify the SSA when someone dies. This stops payment of Social Security benefits, ensuring no one else can try to collect them. It's also important because if the SSA continues to make payments, they will need to be paid back by a family member or the estate.

Don’t assume the funeral home completed this step. You can contact the SSA at 1-800-772-1313.

Notify the IRS

Send a copy of the death certificate to the IRS to inform them of your parent’s death. If your parent received taxable income, the executor of the estate will need to file a final tax return. These steps will help prevent someone from filing a falsified tax return in your parent’s name.

Alert the credit bureaus

“Contact the credit bureaus directly to report a death,” said Siciliano. Waiting for the credit bureaus to update their databases using the SSA’s Death Master File Index, that process can take months, he said.

The executor of the estate can send copies of the death certificate to Experian, Equifax or TransUnion with a request to add a deceased alert to your parent’s credit report. If someone tries to apply for credit using your parent’s information, the deceased alert will expose the fraud attempt.

When you notify one credit bureau, they will report the death to the other two. Executors and surviving spouses can request copies of your parent’s credit report.

The consequences of ghosting

Sorting out identity theft can be a significant stressor to add to the grieving process, and it can cause headaches for family members or the executor of your parent’s estate. Fortunately, the financial consequences for family members and survivors are negligible. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the risks.

Relatives who discover identity theft will not be held responsible for fraud, said Siciliano. But they may find themselves spending time explaining your parent’s death to third parties, and death won’t necessarily stop collections agencies, he said. In some cases, a family member with inside access could be the culprit of fraud, he added, which could result in family disputes and even criminal charges.

“While the deceased may not care that their identity has been stolen, the overriding grief that their family members face is always exacerbated when their loved ones' stolen identity is brought back to life by a thief,” said Siciliano. For these reasons, it’s worth taking steps to prevent ghosting before it happens.

Image: Lindy Baker