Is Nothing Sacred? Death, Identity Theft, and Steps You Can Take Thereafter

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So you’ve been through the toughest of all personal tragedies: A loved one or relative has passed away. You think things can’t possibly get any worse, and then they do: You learn that someone has opened a new account, or filed taxes, or gone to work using the assumed identity of your deceased relative. You wonder “how is this possible?”

Identity thieves obtain information about deceased individuals in various ways. They may monitor obituaries, steal death certificates, or even get the information from websites that offer the Social Security Death Index file. These websites are supposed to be used for genealogy research but are sometimes used to steal identities. Unfortunately, the thief may also be a family member who may take advantage of the situation or who has already been using the deceased’s identity. This may be especially true if the deceased suffered from a lengthy illness, mental confusion, or if there is disagreement among family members prior to death.

Financial institutions are not immediately made aware when someone has passed away. It takes time for the SSA to transmit the Death Master File to the financial industry, and until this time, the file remains active. So if you’ve been unfortunate enough to encounter such a situation within your family, here are some steps you may want to consider.

  • Obtain at least twelve copies of the official death certificate when it becomes available. In some cases you will be able to use a photocopy, but some businesses will request an original death certificate. Since many death records are public, a business may require more than just a death certificate as proof.
  • Be sure to immediately notify relevant credit card companies, banks, stockbrokers, lien holders, etc., of the death.
  • Contact all CRAs, credit issuers, collection agencies, and any other financial institutions that need to know of the death using the required procedures for each one. The following are general tips:
    • Include the following information in all letters:
      • Name and Social Security number of deceased
      • Last known address
      • Last five years of addresses
      • Date of birth
      • Date of death
      • To speed up processing, include all requested documentation specific to that agency in the first letter
    • Send all mail certified, return receipt requested.
    • Keep copies of all correspondence, noting date sent and any response(s) you receive.
  • Finally, request that the report is flagged with the following alert: Deceased. DO NOT issue credit.

In the event that the identity thief is a family member and/or the family cannot decide on whether to seek criminal prosecution, you should contact an attorney for legal advice. While the death of a relative can be a painful experience, ID theft can make things even more painful.  Fortunately with diligence and action in a few simple steps, it should be quite possible to mitigate the damage and get your relative successfully listed as deceased in the relevant credit documents.

For more information on protecting your loved one’s identity after they have passed away, please see the Identity Theft Resource Center’s Fact Sheet at on this topic.

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Nikki Junker

Nikki Junker is Social Media Coordinator and Victim Advisor at The Identity Theft Resource Center. She specializes in Identity Theft on social networks and smartphones. She enjoys working one on one with victims of identity theft as well as researching and writing about preventative measures for consumers.

  • JT

    This is a good write up, my mother had been dead less then a month when an ID thief got her SS# off RootsWeb and filed a tax return under her name. I had not even been appointed executor to the estate yet!
    Too many of the hard core genealogist would like you to believe that the SSDI is such a great thing, lets see if they still have that opinion once the ID theft effects them. Don’t let them tell you other wise I have been living it for months now. Times have changed and peoples thinking including our governments need to change too…its not 1950 people.