What You Need to Know About Obituaries and Identity Theft

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An obituary should serve as a tribute to a loved one that commemorates their life and lets the community know about their passing. However, it sometimes serves as a tool for a method of identity theft called "ghosting."

Identity thieves may try to use the stolen identities of deceased people to procure fraudulent tax returns, get medical care, open credit card accounts or even borrow money.

How Obituaries Can Lead to Identity Theft

Think about the information that's often used to verify an identity: a full name, a mother's maiden name or the name of your high school, to name a few examples. These types of information may be used by official organizations for verification or as answers to security questions with online accounts.

Unfortunately, these types of details often appear in an obituary too. When reading an obituary, it's not uncommon to see information such as:

  • Middle names
  • Maiden names
  • Place of birth
  • Place of death
  • Town of most recent residence
  • Last names of relatives
  • Education history
  • Work history
  • Local club or volunteer associations
  • Military service details

There are a couple ways that obituary information can enable identity theft. First, information like a mother's maiden name is often used as a security question for online accounts and could be used to access known accounts of the deceased.

Second, the details in an obituary may give scammers enough information to seek out further illicit information about the deceased, such as finding their Social Security number on the dark web.

Scammers may then use the information they're able to obtain to assume the identity of the deceased person in a practice known as ghosting. They may use this assumed identity to:

  • Access financial accounts such as bank accounts or retirement savings
  • File tax returns impersonating the deceased to collect a refund
  • Access health benefits and see a doctor under the name of the deceased
  • Use the deceased person's name to get a new loan or credit card

If you decide to publish an obituary, securing a loved one's identity as soon as possible after their death can help protect you from having to deal with identity theft issues.

Other Ways Scammers Use Obituary Information

There are several other types of scams that thieves may try to carry out using obituary information. Familiarizing yourself with these schemes is an important step in avoiding identity theft and other scams after publishing an obituary.

  • Bereavement scams: Some scammers try to infiltrate groups of grieving friends and relatives. By using details gleaned from an obituary, they attempt to pass themselves off as acquaintances of the deceased. They use this false sense of shared grief to manipulate real friends and family members and perhaps even scam money out of them.
  • Elder scams: If an obituary lists a surviving spouse or sibling of an elderly deceased person, these survivors may be vulnerable to scams that target the aging population.
  • Impostor scams: A common tactic targeting bereaved families is the impostor scam. In an imposter scam, scammers may pretend to be someone collecting on debts the deceased owes. Survivors unfamiliar with the deceased's finances may give in and pay.
  • Funeral expense scams: A new type of imposter scam has arisen targeting families who have lost someone to COVID-19. In this scam, bad actors contact grieving families claiming to be a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA is legitimately offering financial support for funerals for people who have died due to the COVID-19, and these scammers use this pretense to gather private information from the family members. They can then use this information to commit identity theft, while the family is left thinking they've submitted a real application for aid.

Important Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies

There are steps you can take when a loved one dies to help secure their identity.

  • Gather and find a safe place for essential documents. These include:

    • Estate documents such as will or trust information and power of attorney documents
    • Identification such as their Social Security card, driver's license and passport
    • Family records such as their birth certificate as well as marriage and divorce papers
    • Insurance policies
    • Financial account information including bank, retirement, investment and credit accounts
    • Online account passwords for things like phone and bank accounts that need to be secured as soon as possible
  • Get extra copies of death certificates. You may need to send death certificates to several entities to close out accounts such as credit cards or file a claim for a life insurance payout. It's good to have 10 to 20 extra copies on hand.
  • Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA). Funeral homes often do this for you. The SSA needs to mark your loved one as deceased and begin the process of providing survivor benefits.
  • Let the department of motor vehicles know. Reach out to your state's motor vehicles department and cancel your loved one's driver's license.
  • Contact creditors and lenders. Contact each credit card issuer and loan provider and ask them to record that your loved one has passed. You will likely need to provide a copy of the death certificate for verification.
  • Notify banks. Similarly, you should notify banks so that accounts can be passed to a joint holder or secured for the time being.
  • Reach out to the credit bureaus. Each of the major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) will flag your deceased loved one's file so new lines of credit cannot be opened in their name.

A Fitting—and Safe—Tribute

Protect your loved one's identity even after they pass by avoiding using too many specific details in their obituary. Consider only using the first names of relatives, for instance. Or mention their military service but not their regiment number or other details. It's possible to tell their story without opening up their identity, or that of their survivors, to theft.

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