Ghosting: Help Better Protect Deceased Loved Ones from Identity Theft

Stealing the identity of someone who is deceased—sometimes called ghosting—can go on for months before the crime is detected. This may be because identity thieves know how to take advantage of the time between when a person dies and when government agencies or financial institutions are notified of the death. How can you better protect your loved ones from identity theft even after they pass away?

Identity Theft of a Deceased Person

Identity thieves can get personal information about deceased individuals by reading obituaries, stealing death certificates, or searching genealogy websites that sometimes provide death records from the Social Security Death Index.

The Social Security Death Index, also called the Death Master File, contains the records of over 83 million deaths that have been reported to the Social Security Administration. The intent of the list is for government agencies, financial institutions, and insurance companies to compare records and help prevent identity fraud. It can also be used for genealogy research, but in some cases, fraudsters have figured out how to search the list for a darker purpose—identity theft of a deceased person.

 It may seem like governmental and financial systems these days would be completely automated, especially when it comes to something as significant as a person’s death and the fate of their assets. But the fact is, it takes time (some say 60 days) for the Social Security Administration to update the Death Master File. The database is available for download through the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) to certified people who “have a legitimate fraud prevention interest, or have a legitimate business purpose” to access the file.

A Survivor’s Responsibility

Further, the Social Security Administration may not be notified at all. The Social Security Administration states that its own list may not contain a record of death for all deceased persons.

So who reports a death to the Social Security Administration? In many cases, the funeral director will report a death as part of their services supporting the family. The agency even has a specific form for funeral directors. Also, web-based systems in the vital-statistics offices of many states were created with the goal of communicating deaths to the Social Security Administration with greater speed and accuracy.

However, many people don’t realize—until it is too late—that it is ultimately the responsibility of the executor of the estate or the deceased’s next-of-kin to ensure that the Social Security Administration is notified of a death as soon as possible.

Help Better Protect a Deceased Family Member from Identity Theft

Below are steps you can take to help better protect a deceased family member from identity theft, and your first step may be to request more copies of the death certificate than you think you’ll need.

The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) recommends ordering at least 12 copies of the official death certificate, as many businesses and government agencies to whom you should report the death will require an original (not a photocopy).

  • Notify the Internal Revenue Service – Send a copy of the death certificate to the IRS using the address where the deceased would have normally filed their paper tax return. You can also send a copy of the death certificate with the person’s final tax return. The IRS provides instructions on how survivors can file the final tax return on behalf of a deceased person.
  • Notify the Social Security Administration – Contact the SSA to inform them when someone dies. Be aware that you must call 1-800-772-1213 to report a death or apply for survivors benefits. If a Social Security recipient has passed away, the SSA can lock their Social Security number in order to help prevent a thief from changing the address and bank account number where benefits are received.
  • Notify All Relevant Financial Institutions – Immediately notify banks, credit card companies, stock brokers, loan and lien holders, and mortgage companies. If an account needs to be closed, ask the company to mark it as, “Closed. Account holder is deceased.” If there is a surviving spouse or another joint account holder, ask the company to change the account to reflect only the surviving person’s name.
  • Notify Credit Reporting Agencies – Send copies of the death certificate to each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax®, TransUnion®, and Experian®) requesting a “deceased alert” on the deceased’s credit report. The ITRC provides specific instructions on reporting a death to each of the major credit reporting agencies.
  • Request and Review Credit Reports – If you are a surviving spouse or the executor of the estate, you can request a copy of the deceased’s credit report from all three nationwide credit bureaus using a form provided by the ITRC. The reports can help alert you to fraud, and also inform you about active accounts that still need to be closed or pending collection accounts.
  • Write the Obituary with Care – Identity thieves can use details from obituaries to piece together the necessary information to steal a deceased person’s identity. Avoid putting too much information in an obituary, such as birth date, birthplace, full name, address, relatives’ names, and other personally identifiable information.
  • Keep Documents Secure – Although it seems unimaginable, the ITRC reports that family members or close friends have taken advantage of an already difficult situation by stealing the identity of a deceased family member. Pay attention to who has access to important documents, and be cautious if a family member or friend asks a lot of questions or insists on accompanying you to the bank or Social Security Administration. Though the involvement could be based on concern, it never hurts to be alert.

Read: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Identity Theft by a Spouse or Family Member

  • Save a Copy of All Communications – When possible, send mail correspondence as certified, return receipt requested. Keep a copy of all communications, noting the date sent and responses received.

If you suspect identity theft of a deceased family member, the ITRC provides a list of recommended next steps.