Can Someone Steal The Identity of a Deceased Person?

Identity theft

In recent years, there have been several cases of individuals stealing the identities of deceased persons and assuming those identities for extended periods of time in the United States. These instances serve as a stark reminder of the potential dangers of identity theft and the need for vigilance in safeguarding personal information.

One such case occurred in 2017, when a Texas fugitive was apprehended and subsequently sentenced to 27 months in prison for assuming the identity of a deceased child and masquerading as that individual for two decades. Similarly, in 2018, a woman from Colorado Springs was arrested for assuming the identity of a Texas child who tragically perished in a harrowing accident at a Dallas airport in the 1960s. According to authorities in Colorado Springs, the woman assumed the deceased child's identity for a staggering 28 years.

More recently, in 2022, a U.S. defense contractor and his wife were arrested and charged with identity theft and conspiracy against the government after it was revealed that they had been living under the identities of two deceased Texas children for an extended period of time. These revelations came to light through federal court records that were unsealed in Honolulu.

The question of whether it is possible to steal the identity of a deceased person is a resounding yes. Identity thieves have demonstrated their ability to exploit the personal information of deceased individuals, causing distress not only to family members but also to merchants, banks, and other businesses that unwittingly provide goods and services to the impostors.

Is It possible To Use a Dead Person's Social Security Number?

In the US, the Social Security Administration (SSA) maintains a national database of reported deaths in order to administer appropriate benefits. This database includes crucial information such as the deceased individual's Social Security number, name, date of birth, date of death, state of last known residence, and zip code of last lump sum payment.

Upon an individual's passing, the SSA typically receives reports of death from the state's Department of Vital Statistics, a family member, or a funeral director. Unfortunately, delays in reporting can create opportunities for identity thieves to exploit the situation by using the deceased person's information for fraudulent activities, such as opening credit accounts.

To prevent such fraudulent actions, a surviving spouse or other authorized individual, such as an executor, can notify the credit bureaus to flag the deceased individual's files with a deceased notation. This step is crucial in reducing the risk of fraud and identity theft by inactivating the deceased person's Social Security number and freezing their accounts.

Despite these preventive measures, there may still be instances where transactions occur between the time of the individual's passing and the issuance of the death certificate. This gap in reporting can lead to instances where the SSA does not receive reports of death for certain deceased individuals, allowing for potential misuse of their identities.

For example, after the passing of her husband, an elderly woman from Georgia was blindsided by the realization that he had become a target for identity fraud. Shockingly, just two days after his death, identity thieves exploited information from her husband’s obituary to intercept his mail and fraudulently open new lines of credit in his name.

To carry out this despicable act, criminals scour obituaries for personal details of the deceased, such as their full name, date and place of birth, address, phone number, email, education and employment history, military service, family members, and funeral information. Once armed with this information, fraudsters can perpetrate a variety of scams, including funeral assistance, outstanding debt, Medicare, tax fraud, romance scams, delinquent life insurance, and credit fraud.

Protecting a Deceased Person’s Identity

In the unfortunate event of a family member or friend passing away, it is crucial to take proactive measures to safeguard their identity from potential fraudsters.

First and foremost, it is imperative to refrain from including sensitive information in the obituary. Identity thieves often target obituaries and notices for personal details that can be used for fraudulent activities. Therefore, it is advisable to exclude information such as birthplace, address, date of birth, middle name, and mother’s maiden name. Additionally, consider omitting the names of survivors to avoid becoming a target for criminals.

Secondly, it is essential to obtain copies of the death certificate promptly. This can be done by visiting the local Vital Records office to ensure that the death is officially recorded.

Furthermore, it is recommended to notify one of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) about the deceased family member. By informing the reporting agency, a “deceased” notice will be placed on the credit report, effectively preventing fraudsters from obtaining credit in the deceased individual’s name.

Lastly, it is crucial to provide the Social Security Administration with a copy of the death certificate and the date of death. While funeral homes may offer this service, it is advisable to personally ensure that this step is completed promptly to prevent any potential identity theft issues.
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