When John Egan’s 74-year-old mother passed away, identity theft was the furthest thing from his mind. “It was unexpected and a complete shock to everyone,” says Egan about his mother’s death.
Luckily, when Egan, editor-in-chief at LawnStarter, a lawn care service startup, arrived in Missouri to be with family, his aunt and uncle had already printed out literature on how to protect a deceased relative from identity theft.
As executor of his mother’s estate, Egan also became responsible for her financial matters, which intensified the need to protect his mother’s estate against identity theft. “It’s not only important to protect the integrity of the loved one; in many cases, it’s protecting your own financial well-being, because it could come back on you,” Egan says. “Fortunately, nothing like that has happened to me. I took care of everything quickly enough.”
Here are some helpful hints that Egan and other experts suggest that can help you better protect a deceased relative from identity theft. Please keep in mind that some of these activities may can only be performed by an executor or other legal authority.
- Limit details in obituary notices. “A wealth of information can be obtained, starting with the obituary and building a file from there,” says IgorKlopov, co-founder of New York-based cybersecurity firm CyberSec. For this reason, some experts say you may want to avoid using the deceased relative’s exact date of birth, middle name, maiden name, and exact address of where he or she lived in an obituary notice.
- Request multiple copies of the death certificate. The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) recommends that you order at least 12 copies of the death certificate because many businesses may require proof of death. In Egan’s case, he ordered 15 copies of his mother’s death certificate. “I didn’t use them all, but my thinking was I’d rather be safe than sorry,” he says. In some instances, Egan says financial institutions offered to make photocopies.
Getting a copy of his mother’s death certificate proved to be the key first step for Egan. “You can’t do anything until after you get the death certificate,” he says. “Otherwise I had no proof that she had passed away.”
Keep in mind that death certificates have the deceased relative’s SSN listed. “You’ve got to protect that death certificate because it could get into the wrong hands and could be a tool for an identity thief,” Egan says.
- Check to make sure the SSN being issued is correct. Egan says the first batch of death certificates he received had the wrong SSN for his mother. “I looked at it and knew this wasn’t the right number,” Egan says. “I called the funeral home, and they contacted the state agency that deals with it. I then had to wait to get it reissued.”
- Pull a credit report for the deceased and inform the credit reporting agencies (CRAs). Egan says he pulled his mother’s credit report very soon after her death to find out what credit cards she had. (Note that according to the ITRC, “only the surviving spouse, someone with power of attorney for the deceased, or the executor of the estate may request this information.”)
The ITRC recommends asking each CRA to place a “deceased alert” on the relatives’ credit report that says, “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].”
Send a copy of the death certificate via certified mail with return receipt to each CRA.
- Notify credit card companies and contact the nationwide consumer credit reporting agencies to place a freeze your deceased loved one’s credit. Egan’s mother already had a credit freeze, but he says it was still just as important to call credit card companies to make them aware of her passing.
- Send any additional mail correspondence via certified mail. Experts say you may also want to request a return receipt.
- Contact the department of motor vehicles (DMV). To discourage duplicate driver’s licenses from being issued to identity thieves, inform the DMV that a relative is now deceased.
- Make sure the Social Security Administration has been contacted. “Typically the Social Security Administration will be notified automatically, [by the funeral director], but you still need to make sure that it did happen,” Egan says. To report the death, call the Social Security office at 800.772.1213. According to SocialSecurity.gov, family members of their deceased relative “may also be able to receive Social Security benefits if the deceased person worked long enough under Social Security to qualify for benefits.”
- Close bank accounts. In the case of jointly held accounts, including ones with a surviving spouse, the ITRC says that individual should immediately notify relevant credit card companies, banks, stock brokers, loan/lien holders, and mortgage companies of the death. When you close the account, you may want to have the bank list it as “Closed. Account holder is deceased.”
- Plan ahead. Egan says he had to “play detective” to figure out where his mother put copies of her estate planning document. He notes that families should ideally make sure their financial records are in order so children or other relatives of deceased family members can later find and protect bank accounts, CDs, life insurance policies, deeds to property, and other financial records from identity thieves.
“I encourage anyone who has an older parent or parents to make sure they have their ducks in a row so their financial house is order,” Egan says. “My mother thankfully had all of that taken care of. I can’t even imagine how much more labor it would have taken without her foresight.”
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