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$10 Buys Thieves Access To A Dead Person's Identity

You may think your deceased loved ones are safe from having their identities stolen. Not true! The Death Master File contains data about millions of deceased people including the full name, Social Security number and other personal information. Though you’d think this would be carefully guarded, the Social Security Administration provides the file to the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS). NTIS, in turn, distributes it to more than 450 entities including state and local governments, hospitals, universities, financial institutions, insurance companies and genealogy services. Even worse, anyone can access the information through the NTIS website. The cost? $10 for one person or an annual subscription with unlimited access to all of the files of deceased individuals costs $995.

The Social Security Administration created the file to help financial institutions and businesses prevent identity theft by using the file to cross-reference applicants and customers to verify they’re not using a dead person’s identity. According to CNN Money, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat, Pennsylvania, said the agency is “inadvertently facilitating tax fraud” and has called for restrictions to be placed on access to the Death Master File. The IRS has been adding protections but it’s struggling to keep up with a surge in tax fraud. The Treasury Inspector General said in May that the IRS could end up doling out $26 billion in fraudulent refunds over the next five years. In a congressional hearing in May, IRS deputy commissioner Steven Miller said that as of mid-April, his agency had already flagged 91,000 tax returns that were filed under the names of recently deceased individuals.

About 2.4 million deceased Americans each year get their identities stolen according to ID Analytics. Besides taking revenue from the government, thieves steal the personal information to apply for credit cards, cell phones and anything that requires a credit check. And think of the toll it takes on the families that have just lost a loved one. Their grief is compounded by having to rescue that person’s identity. 

Because of the Freedom of Information Act, it’ll take legislation to restrict access to the file unless the Office of Management and Budget finds a way to limit access and cut down tax fraud. The best action you can take to protect your private information while you’re alive (and that will carry over in death) is to freeze your credit. A credit freeze is simply an agreement you make with the three main credit reporting bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – listed below) that they won’t allow new accounts (credit card, banking, brokerage, loans, rental agreements, etc.) to be attached to your name/social security number unless you contact the credit bureau, give them a password and allow them to unfreeze or thaw your account for a short period of time. Yes, freezing your credit takes a bit of time (maybe an hour of work), can be a little inconvenient when you want to set up a new account (that said, let’s face it, businesses want to make it as easy as possible to unfreeze your credit because they benefit when you set up new accounts and spend more money) and it can cost a few dollars (generally about $10 to unfreeze, a small price compared to the recovery costs of identity theft). And it is worth it! It’s like putting locks on your doors.

Since all states don’t allow you, by law, to freeze your credit, the three credit reporting bureaus have begun to offer credit freezes on a national basis. This is a major step forward in the prevention of identity theft, even if they are offering it for profit reasons (they make money every time you freeze/unfreeze your credit). If your state does not currently offer credit freezes by law, you can now apply with each credit reporting bureau individually. Regardless of where you live, freeze your credit today.A credit freeze doesn’t affect your existing credit – it doesn’t freeze credit cards, bank accounts or loans you already have. It only freezes access to your account unless someone has a password to get in. It’s like having a PIN number on your ATM card. It also doesn’t lower (or raise) your credit score.

Equifax Credit Freeze
P.O. Box 105788 Atlanta, Georgia 30348
Toll-Free: 1.800.685.1111

TransUnion Credit Freeze
Fraud Victim Assistance Department P.O. Box 6790 Fullerton, CA 92834
Toll-Free: 1.888.909.8872

Experian Credit Freeze
P.O. Box 9554 Allen, TX 75013
Toll-Free: 1.888.397.3742

5 Steps to Stop Identity Theft of a Deceased Family Member

I’ve just visited the fountain of youth. Have you ever had one of those experiences where you meet a person or a group of people that renews your faith in all that’s good in the world? I delivered a speech on identity theft prevention to AARP South Carolina (a chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons – an amazing organization that you should be part of if you are over 50) yesterday morning, and met a group that actually makes me look forward to growing up. Doris, Barb, Leigh Ann, Patrick, Lynda, Bill, Ridge, Charlie, Emily (I could name 50 more)… these are the people that greeted me like I was part of their family and treated me like someone special. They are some of the youngest spirits I’ve ever met. And I learned a great deal from them…

AARP had asked me to speak at their annual meeting as a thank you to their incredibly dedicated core of volunteers. These are people who put their muscle where their mouth is. And they paid attention and were so engaged that it was like giving a motivational identity theft speech. They inspired me! They must have had fifty additional great questions after the presentation that I didn’t have time to answer because they were headed into additional sessions. Given that, I’d like to take a few minutes to address a few of the items that pertain specifically to identity theft prevention for retirees and people over 50. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let me point you to the resources on identity theft prevention that AARP provides on their website. They are extensive and geared to the retiree population.

But I want to elaborate on a question that one member of the audience brought up after the speech: identity theft of a deceased family member. This has to be one of the most callous, horrific forms of identity theft. Here a spouse is having to deal with the loss of their soul mate and a criminal takes advantage of their distraction and grief to profit from the deceased’s identity. Here are 5 steps to take after a loved-one has passed away to make sure that their identity rests in peace:

  1. Short Obituaries. Make sure that you don’t include too much identifying information when you write the obituary. Identity thieves use this information (mother’s maiden name, address, ancestry, occupation, birth date, death date) to set up new accounts, licenses, etc. in the deceased person’s name. It is important to honor the person, just don’t give away all of their personal information.
  2. Protect Death Certificates. Guard the death certificate like you would a birth certificate or other piece of identity. You will need to fax this document to certain organizations in order to prove that your family member is deceased, but only send it to trusted institutions who absolutely won’t take the name off of the account without it. When you are done with the death certificate, store the original and all copies in your SentrySafe where you keep other identity documents. Be forewarned that for securities sake, many organizations are requiring an original copy of the death certificate as proof, so ask for 10-12 originals copies when you request the death certificate.
  3. Notify Credit Bureaus. Immediately notify the three credit reporting bureaus that your family member has passed away. Request that the credit report is flagged with the note: Deceased, Do Not Issue Credit. Request a copy of the decedent’s credit report so that you will have a list of all of the accounts you need to modify/close (see Step 4). The procedure varies by credit burea, so the numbers to contact them are as follows: Experian – 888-397-3742; Equifax – 888-766-0008; TransUnion – 800-680-7289. Don’t wait for the Social Security Administration to notify the credit bureaus – it takes them too long! And make sure to log all correspondence and conversations and send documents via certified mail so that you have proof of delivery, should you ever need to dispute a claim of non-receipt.
  4. Notify Financial Institutions. Notify all banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, stock brokers, mortgage companies, loan/lien holders, etc. about the death of your family member (if it was a joint account OR an account under their name). The executor or surviving spouse will need to resolve all outstanding debts and how they will be dealt with before the account can be closed or the deceased person’s name is removed from the account. Also notify the Social Security Administration, Veteran’s Administration, Department of Motor Vehicles, professional license associations (Bar Association), membership programs (Costco, Sam’s, Blockbuster, etc.) and any creditors or collection agencies with which the deceased had an account or membership. This is a difficult time to put in all of the work to protect an identity that should be left alone; but the current reality is that the identities of deceased individuals are easier to steal and abuse than those of the living.
  5. Share Wisely with Family Members. Unfortunately, many cases of deceased identity theft are committed by a member of the deceased’s family. It might be a relative who is in financial trouble, a friend who has a costly addiction or a child that feels he or she was wronged in the will or estate planning. For that reason, the identifying information of a deceased family member should be kept to as small a circle as possible. It seems to work best when one family member is the point-person for collection of documents, closing of accounts, checking of credit, etc. Generally this is someone other than the person who organizes all of the other events that surround the death of a loved one.

This is a heavy topic on the heels of such a wonderful encounter in South Carolina. But as any one who has survived the death of a spouse knows, the responsibility and respect for that person continue long past the date of their death. I hope that these suggestions make that burden/blessing a little bit easier. John Sileo is an an award-winning author and keynote speaker on identity theft, internet privacy, fraud training & technology defense. John specializes in making security entertaining, so that it works. John is CEO of The Sileo Group, whose clients include the Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security & Pfizer. John’s body of work includes appearances on 60 Minutes, Rachael Ray, Anderson Cooper & Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.