Jan 12, 2016

Thieves can steal from you (and you don't even have to be alive)

If there's a way to make a dishonest buck, you can be sure someone, somewhere will find it and exploit it. And because scammers always zero in on the most vulnerable people, families dealing with the death of a loved one - and even the dearly departed themselves - are prime targets.

Scams can take many forms. Theft of decedents' identities is rampant; according to the fraud prevention company ID Analytics, more than two million decedents' identities are stolen annually. Credit cards accounts are opened and fraudulent tax returns are filed in this manner.

As to scams targeting bereaved families, here's a partial list:
  • Posing as a creditor of the deceased and demanding payment from surviving family members. (Unless you are on the deceased's account or have co-signed, you are not responsible for a decedent's debts.)  
  • Having an empty package delivered to a surviving family member's home and demanding payment for it, under the pretense that the deceased ordered it.
  • Contacting a family member and posing as a relative of the deceased, then asking for money to cover transportation to the funeral.  
  • Burglarizing the home when occupants are at a funeral.
How do scammers get access to the information they need to pull off their mischief? Obituaries are a prime source. Therefore, as much as you are tempted to sing the praises of your late loved one, it's prudent to keep obituaries to the point and omit unnecessary details. Don't publish home addresses or the decedent's mother's maiden name. You can mention the age of your late loved one, but leave out date of birth.

Here are some additional preventive steps family members can take as soon as they are up to it after a loved one's death:
  • Notify the Social Security Administration.
  • Notify banks, charge accounts, insurers, brokerages, mortgage companies and other financial institutions.
  • Carefully review all bills that may arrive for the decedent, and demand verification if contacted by a decedent's creditor.
  • Contact the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax (800-525-6285), Experian (888-397-3742) and Transunion (800-680-7289). Ask that they flag the file as "deceased - do not issue credit."   
  • Remove the decedent's name from joint accounts.
  • Notify the Division of Motor Vehicles.

The above are steps you can take to prevent identity theft and other scams after someone dies. What about before? If you are establishing an estate plan and are concerned about privacy, you may want to consider establishing a trust instead of a will. A will becomes public record once filed and thus, can be mined by would-be thieves for information about the decedent, beneficiaries, distributions, etc. A trust, on the other hand, is a private document and thus affords your family greater privacy. You can read more about wills and trusts at my website.

For more information on decedent identity theft from the Identity Theft Resource Center, click here.

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