Identity theft isn't just a problem for the living anymore. In the last few years, numerous news reports have highlighted a rather morbid tactic employed by some criminals who steal the identities of the recently deceased.
"The deceased are vulnerable to identity theft because the family is in mourning and they're not paying attention to the deceased person's finances or personal information," says Sonya Smith-Valentine, a Largo, Md., lawyer who specializes in helping consumers recover from the effects of identity theft.
While identity theft is probably the last thing on your mind when a loved one dies, Smith-Valentine says there are a few simple things you can do to discourage identity thieves and to minimize the chances that a recently deceased relative will be victimized.
Notify credit reporting agencies
When a person dies, it can take one to six months for all three credit reporting agencies to be notified, says Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert in Boston and consultant to Internet security firm McAfee Inc.
"When someone passes, a death certificate is issued via the state's (office of) vital statistics, or (in some states) another state agency," Siciliano says. "Once you have the death certificate, it's advisable to contact the credit bureaus as soon as possible."
But you shouldn't just rely on the credit bureaus to get the word out.
"Send official copies of the death certificate -- photo copies are not acceptable -- to all entities where the decedent had a financial relationship," says Jack Vonder Heide, president of Technology Briefing Centers, an Oak Brook, Ill., consultancy that works with banks on various identity theft issues. "Contact each creditor, each insurance company, each bank or credit union, brokerage house, the Social Security Administration and any pension issuer."
According to Vonder Heide, it's also a good idea to cancel the deceased's driver's license with the state's Department of Motor Vehicles and notify the Direct Marketing Association to put the person's name on the "deceased do not contact list."
Go easy on the details
While it's natural to want to share information about loved one in an obituary, family members should be aware that some identity thieves scan the newspaper for potential victims, Smith-Valentine says.
"Information about the deceased is usually published in an obituary in a newspaper, so it's easy for thieves to gather and use," says Smith-Valentine. "You should avoid putting the deceased's exact birth date and middle name in the obituary to make things harder for an identity thief."
It's also a good idea to omit the deceased's exact address as well as their maiden name. According to Vonder Heide, a good rule of thumb is for relatives to leave out any information that would likely be needed when consumers apply for a credit card, open a bank account or apply for insurance. They may seem like innocuous details, but they're the kind of leads identity thieves use to get the ball rolling.
Gather up revealing documents
Simply put, there are a lot of personal and financial documents a person leaves behind, and it's critical to locate and secure them as soon after a loved one dies as possible, says Alexis Moore, founder of Survivors In Action, a nonprofit victim's advocacy group in El Dorado Hills, Calif.