Identify Theft in the Afterlife

With all personal information breaches at IRS, Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and other agencies/businesses, the public has plenty to be concerned about. Being a victim of identity theft is expensive and time-consuming. You never forget the experience.

But did you know that we are all victims of identity theft at this very moment? Many of us just aren’t aware of it. As U.S. taxpayers, we all pay for the theft of deceased individuals’ personal information to illegally obtain tax refunds and Social Security retirement benefits. Shocked? It’s unfortunate, but thieves gather readily-available information from public websites to masquerade as people’s deceased family members and file for fraudulent tax refunds. That personal information can also be used to apply for a loan or credit card, or even to place a mortgage on the family home.

Statistics probably don’t tell the whole story. It is estimated that in the U.S. alone, more than 2 million deceased individual’s personal information is used annually to fraudulently obtain loans, tax refunds, and utility services. One “fatal flaw” that allows some fraud to occur is an incomplete “Death Master File” at the Social Security Administration (SSA). For example, federal audit results showed 6.8 million missing social security numbers of people who died before 1901. Those missing social security numbers were used to defraud U.S. taxpayers of $3 billion in IRS refunds from 2006 to 2011.

Families and individuals can safeguard a deceased person’s identity from theft by these four following steps. These steps are prescribed by public and private organizations working to heighten awareness of fraud stemming from taking personal information. The estate’s executor or administrator, or a trusted family member, should:

1. Send death certificate copies by certified mail to:

-Credit reporting bureaus requesting that a “deceased alert” be placed on the credit report.

-Banks, insurers and other financial firms requesting account closure or change of ownership.

2. Report the death to the SSA, the IRS, and the state motor vehicles department.

3. Exclude personal details from obituaries (e.g., birth date and place, or last address).

4. Periodically check the deceased person’s credit report at for suspicious activity.