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How to Prevent Identity Thieves from Impersonating a Dead Relative

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Losing a relative is hard enough. But having fraudsters steal the deceased’s identity only adds insult to injury, creating a frustrating mess for survivors to clean up. According to a study released by ID Analytics’ ID:A Labs in 2012, identity thieves impersonate nearly 2.5 million deceased Americans each year, applying for credit products and services with their Social Security number.

We talked to identity theft expert, Robert Siciliano, to find out what survivors need to know and how they can protect the identities of late relatives.

Why steal a dead person’s identity?

Once someone dies, information like their full name and birthdate likely appear in an obituary, giving scammers key information about that person’s identity. It can also take six months or longer for the credit bureaus to catch up, during which time an imposter might open new credit cards or other accounts without being detected. “That’s six months of pure bliss for an identity thief,” Siciliano says.

What happens when someone steals the deceased’s identity?

Fortunately for survivors, they shouldn’t be held responsible for fraudulent charges. However, they may get calls from bill collectors or creditors, which, understandably, can be upsetting to grieving relatives. And it may take time to clear up the issue. As with identity theft for the living, the longer an issue persists, the harder it becomes to untangle. “It takes time to navigate through the process of making it go away,” Siciliano says. “It could be extensive or minimal depending on the extent of the theft, but it shouldn’t cost them much money.”

How can we prevent this?

Ideally, the person would have frozen their credit while they’re still alive. Credit freezes last beyond the person’s lifetime, but you can’t freeze the credit of the deceased. Instead, contact all three credit bureaus to notify them of a loved one’s death so that no one can open new credit in the person’s name. Also be careful of how you discard the deceased’s personal information like bank statements or tax returns. “You want to save some things based on what lawyers might tell you,” Siciliano says. “Have it locked up somewhere secure. When it comes time to discard it, make sure that it’s discarded properly with a cross-cut shredder.”

What if it’s already happened?

Untangling identity theft is similar whether the person is living or dead. To start, Siciliano suggests pulling the deceased’s credit to find out what accounts opened illegally and contacting those entities to notify them of the fraudulent activity.

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