Stealing a Decedent’s Identity

As identify theft has increased over the past decade, most people know to carefully guard personal information, especially Social Security Numbers.  People don’t give their Social Security Numbers out to third parties without caution and careful deliberation and Social Security cards are stored in safe locations rather than carried around in wallets.  Parents are even starting to monitor the credit scores of their minor children as identify thieves target Social Security Numbers that are issued at birth but whose credit is not reviewed until adulthood.  

With the recent security breach of Equifax, people might want to consider taking the extra step of “freezing” their credit reports if they have no need to use their credit in the foreseeable future.  To freeze one’s credit, all three of the credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – must be contacted individually.  The agencies often charge fees to freeze credit and it should be kept in mind that every time a person wants to temporarily “un-freeze” his or her credit in order to get a loan, additional fees might apply.  Freezing a credit report is not foolproof but might be a reasonable step to add a degree of security.

While these precautions are all advisable, most people do not think about protecting a decedent’s identity.

Although during life people are very careful about keeping Social Security Numbers private, a decedent’s Social Security Number is reported on the Death Certificate.  The Death Certificate is sent to financial institutions, often recorded at the County Recorder, and often filed with the Courts as a public record.  As such, decedents’ Social Security Numbers become public knowledge and are therefore easy for identify thieves to steal.  Thieves will then use the Social Security Numbers to incur debt in the decedent’s name and sometimes even fraudulently file the decedent’s tax return in order to collect refunds.  Such a situation can be a mess for loved ones of decedents to address.  Fortunately, there are steps that loved ones can take to protect a decedent’s identity.

First, the Social Security Administration should be notified of a decedent’s death as soon as possible.  Most mortuaries automatically provide such notification.

Second, obituaries should omit personal information that could be of interest to identify thieves such as the decedent’s birthdate and mother’s maiden name.

Third, loved ones should give notice and instruction to the three credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – as follows: (1) notification of the decedent’s death; (2) instruct the agencies to place a “Deceased – Do Not Issue Credit” alert on the decedent’s credit report; (3) request a copy of the decedent’s credit report; and (4) request a notification to the executor if a new application for credit is made in the decedent’s name.  All three agencies accept a standard form entitled, “Credit Report Request for the Deceased,” which can be used for this purpose.  

KRASA LAW, Inc. is located at 704-D Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, California and Kyle may be reached at 831-920-0205.

Disclaimer: This article is for general information only.  Reading this article does not establish an attorney-client relationship.  Before acting upon any of the information presented in this article, you should consult a competent attorney who is licensed to practice law in your community.