NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Identity theft is rampant and thieves are especially fond of targeting the elderly and loved ones who have passed away.
Deleting a person's identity can be a cumbersome task, but it is the only way to ensure your loved one does not become a victim of identity theft, said Julie Myhre, editor of NextAdvisor.com, a Burlingame, Calif. company which compares and reviews service providers.
"There isn't an easy way to delete a deceased person's identity, because you literally have to remove every trail that could lead an identity thief to the deceased's identity," she said. "Families need to remember that in the end they will have the comfort of knowing that their family member can truly rest in peace and not live on through an identity thief."
After getting 12 official copies of the death certificate, you should start by contacting the Social Security Administration, because the majority of a person's identity is connected to his Social Security number, said Myhre. Alerting the SSA will get the deceased's personal information added to the Death Master File or an official list of the deceased maintained by the SSA. A family member or executor of the estate should call the SSA.
Make sure that you alert all three credit bureaus - Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Before calling, family members or executors of the estate should make sure that they have the deceased's full name, Social Security number, date of birth, date of death, last known address and his last five years of addresses, she said.
"Each of the bureaus has specific requirements to mark a credit holder as deceased, so it's best to call each bureau prior to sending the official death certificate to find out what the specific requirements are for that specific bureau," said Myhre. "Once all the necessary information is gathered, the family members or executor of the estate can then mail it to the individual bureaus."
Don't forget to void the deceased's driver's license since it contains a lot of personal information. Another important step is to contact every bank and financial institution the deceased did business with since many people use more than one bank.
It is also essential to contact any financial institutions or bank where the deceased person had a credit card, mortgage, personal loan or any other debt. If the deceased has unpaid debt, then the spouse, someone with a power of attorney or the executor of the estate will be responsible for sorting it out with each individual bank and financial institution, she said.
Alert insurance and annuity companies and cancel any membership-orientated agencies.
"This can be the most time consuming step, because a family member or executor of the estate must call or contact grocery stores, health clubs, libraries, alumni clubs, professional organizations, as well as rotary or lions organizations," said Myhre.
While there is no specific time frame to complete these tasks, the steps that are most important are alerting the Social Security Administration and all three of the credit bureaus, because that is the information that most thieves usually target. Family members should keep in mind that the sooner they complete these steps, the less likely their deceased family member is to fall victim to identity theft.
"Losing a loved one can be an extremely emotional time for families, and unfortunately, as a result these steps to delete the person's identity can completely slip their mind," she said. "They are not intentionally forgetting to protect the identity of their loved one — they are simply trying to get through their loss."
The deceased are targeted by identity thieves, because they are easy targets.
"Identity thieves are trying to gather as much personal information about the deceased person as they can through any medium they can, which is why it's also essential for family members or the executors of the estate to also remember to delete or memorialize the person's social media accounts," said Myhre.
Thieves can easily take advantage because family members are not aware of the problem until it has occurred, said Maria Cordeiro, a client services manager at Chubb Personal Insurance.
"With documents and records being passed through several different hands after someone is deceased, their information could easily be exposed to the wrong person looking to use it for financial gain," she said. "Family members should be wary of people helping to manage the estate."
Limit the amount of information placed within the obituary because identity thieves are known to browse obituaries to locate their next victim, Cordeiro said. Ensure the information does not disclose too much about the decedent.
The prevention of identity theft is an item that should be addressed during the estate planning process, said Hugo Tomasio, an estate planning specialist at AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company.
"The best offense is a good defense when it comes to identity theft protection," he said. "While it may be a less than pleasant conversation during life, forming an estate plan saves family members and loved ones from dealing with the problem later."
Each year there are some 2.5 million cases of reported identity theft among the deceased, said Robert Siciliano, identity theft expert with BestIDTheftCompanys.com.
"Theft of deceased peoples' identity happens partly because of the availability of public records coupled with the time it takes for credit bureaus, the Social Security Administration, financial institutions and others to process a deceased person's Social Security number (SSN) in their systems and close all current and future lines of credit," he said.
--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet