Ghosting: Help Better Protect Deceased Loved Ones from Identity Theft

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Stealing the identity of someone who is deceased—sometimes called ghosting—can go on for months before the crime is detected.

This may be because identity thieves know how to take advantage of the time between when a person dies and when government agencies or financial institutions are notified of the death. How can you better protect your loved ones from identity theft even after they pass away?

Identity Theft of a Deceased Person

Identity thieves can get personal information about deceased individuals by reading obituaries, stealing death certificates, or searching genealogy websites that sometimes provide death records from the Social Security Death Index.

The Social Security Death Index, also called the Death Master File, contains the records of over 83 million deaths that have been reported to the Social Security Administration. The intent of the list is for government agencies, financial institutions, and insurance companies to compare records and help prevent identity fraud. It can also be used for genealogy research, but in some cases, fraudsters have figured out how to search the list for a darker purpose—identity theft of a deceased person.

It may seem like governmental and financial systems these days would be completely automated, especially when it comes to something as significant as a person’s death and the fate of their assets. But the fact is, it takes time (some say 60 days) for the Social Security Administration to update the Death Master File. The database is available for download through the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) to certified people who “have a legitimate fraud prevention interest, or have a legitimate business purpose” to access the file.

A Survivor’s Responsibility

Further, the Social Security Administration may not be notified at all. The Social Security Administration states that its own list may not contain a record of death for all deceased persons.

So who reports a death to the Social Security Administration? In many cases, the funeral director will report a death as part of their services supporting the family. The agency even has a specific form for funeral directors. Also, web-based systems in the vital-statistics offices of many states were created with the goal of communicating deaths to the Social Security Administration with greater speed and accuracy.

However, many people don’t realize—until it is too late—that it is ultimately the responsibility of the executor of the estate or the deceased’s next-of-kin to ensure that the Social Security Administration is notified of a death as soon as possible.

Help Better Protect a Deceased Family Member from Identity Theft

Below are steps you can take to help better protect a deceased family member from identity theft, and your first step may be to request more copies of the death certificate than you think you’ll need.


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