Don't Allow Crooks to "Ghost" Your Loved Ones


Courtney Babin
ACFE Communications Coordinator

It’s almost All Hallows’ Eve. Your pumpkins have been carved, decorations displayed and candy has been purchased for neighborhood trick-or-treaters. Whether you’re passing out candy, dressing up or people-watching at a local pub, you will be sure to encounter a few authentic costumes. You could almost do a scavenger hunt of sorts: find a vampire, ghost and zombie. Not only do these characters have Halloween in common, they also can be categorized as the living dead.

Much like a vampire, ghost or zombie in a movie, fraud can be rampant and unforgiving. Fraud preys on anyone, even the dead. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), identity thieves can obtain information about deceased individuals in various ways such as obituaries, death certificates and websites that offer the Social Security Death Index. This abuse of a deceased individual’s identity is referred to as “ghosting.” The University of Texas’ Center for Identity estimates that “approximately 2.5 million identities are stolen each year from deceased victims.”

Ghosting occurs partly because accounts in a deceased individual’s name will remain active until the financial institution is made aware that the customer has passed. According to the ITRC this is because it takes time for the Social Security Administration to transmit the Death Master File to the financial industry. Also, the Death Master File is not always accurate since it is based on information provided by consumers and governmental agencies.

With identity thieves lurking, here are some steps to protect your deceased loved one’s identity so that its “ghost” does not haunt your family:

  • The IRS recommends that families “avoid putting too much information in an obituary, such as birth date, address, mother’s maiden name or other personally identifying information that could be useful to thieves.” Be aware that identity thieves do scan obituaries in newspapers. Leave out any information that could relate to applying for a credit card or opening a bank account.
  • If there is a surviving spouse or other joint account holders, the ITRC notes for them to “immediately notify relevant credit card companies, banks, stock brokers, loan/lien holders and mortgage companies of the death.
  • The ITRC also recommends contacting all credit reporting agencies, credit issuers, collection agencies and other financial institutions that need to know of the death. There might be different mandatory procedures for each agency. Here is information that the ITRC says to include in all letters  to these agencies:
    • Name and SSN of the deceased
    • Last known address and last five years of addresses
    • Date of birth
    • Date of death

Send all mail as certified mail and request the return receipt. Also keep any correspondences, noting the date sent and any responses you receive. Request a credit report as well. This report will tell you of any accounts with which you need to follow through. Once you receive the credit report, ask that it is flagged as “Deceased.”

Whether this information is helpful now or in the future, make sure that your family is protected from criminals whose only intent is to resurrect your loved one’s identity for their profit.