Cyber Bytes:

Protecting Loved Ones From Posthumous Identity Theft

In the face of personal loss, safeguarding your loved one’s identity may not be the first thing on your mind. Unfortunately, cybercriminals don’t respect bereavement. In fact, identity thieves often exploit obituaries and mourners to gather personal information for their scams. But you can learn to recognize the signs ahead of time.

How scammers exploit obituaries

Criminals scour obituaries for personally identifiable information (PII) to use in identity theft scams. They know they can exploit the information freely given in a person’s obituary, such as:

  • Full name
  • Date of birth and death
  • Place of birth and death
  • Home address or town
  • Education, employment and military service history
  • Names of family members and their relationships to the decedent
  • Contact information

That’s more than enough information to create a story that sells. They can pose as angry bill collectors, financial institutions, life insurance agents or old friends of your loved one.

Once they have your loved one’s information, the scammers get to work assembling their narrative. They might use the information to poach the decedent’s identity before the death is recorded. Or they might pose as a life insurance company that needs cash to reinstate a lapsed policy, promising a big payout once the policy is restored. Other scams involve posing as a creditor and threatening severe legal action against the remaining family unless they pay up.

All of the fraudulent schemes involve leveraging your grief for gain.

The importance of a probate lawyer

A probate lawyer (aka estate lawyer) works with executors and beneficiaries of an estate during the probate process. The probate process refers to the legal proceedings after someone dies. A lawyer will help you validate the will, distribute the assets and settle any debts.

When settling an estate, it’s important to understand the legal terms and parties:

  • The decedent is the person who died.
  • The estate consists of all of the assets the decedent has left behind.
  • The executor is a person or institution, usually named in the will, to carry out the terms of the will.
  • The beneficiaries are those named in the will to receive the decedent’s assets.

If your loved one dies without a will, it is called dying intestate. In this case, a probate court appoints an executor in accordance with state law to settle the estate. Again, a probate lawyer can help you with this process.

With an impartial party on the case, like a lawyer, it’s less likely that a criminal will run an effective con without detection. But there are some scams you’ll need to watch out for even after the estate is finalized.

Strategies to protect against scams

You can protect your loved one’s legacy and estate against criminals using these tips:

  • Once you’re issued a death certificate, register it with your state’s vital records office. Most institutions require a copy of the death certificate to transfer accounts or begin the probate process.
  • Verify whether your state’s vital records office alerts the department of motor vehicles (DMV). If not, contact the DMV directly so no one can apply for a fake driver’s license using the decedent’s identity.
  • Review and monitor property deeds and update the name as soon as possible. Mortgage-free properties are a target for title thieves. Once they secure the title, they can take out loans against it or sell it.
  • Maintain the decedent’s property so it doesn’t look abandoned. Give neighbors your contact information so they can reach you if they see suspicious activity. For example, some scammers post vacant property or land parcels for sale and make off with the proceeds before anyone notices.
  • Set up credit monitoring that alerts you if a con artist tries to steal your loved one’s identity or property.
  • File any remaining tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The IRS requires tax returns up to the date of death. Contact your lawyer for help with closing out the estate and any tax issues that might arise because of it.
  • Notify the Social Security Administration (SSA). Typically, the funeral home notifies the SSA, but you might want to take this step if the funeral arrangements are delayed. Once the SSA registers the account holder’s death, scammers will have a much harder time getting a new Social Security card in the decedent’s name.
  • Don’t fall for life insurance payout scams. For example, a criminal might pretend you’re in line to acquire money from your loved one’s insurance policy, with a tiny caveat: You must pay the outstanding balance to collect a large sum. Once you pay the money, the criminal takes off with it. If someone contacts you asking for payment, don’t do it. Call the life insurance company’s direct number from their main website instead.
  • Be mindful of the information you share in the obituary. Avoid oversharing details like maiden names or other personal data that can help criminals confirm identities or build profiles.

Strategize for the future

Use these approaches to empower yourself against sophisticated scams. Part of protecting your loved ones is communicating clearly so everyone involved knows what to expect and where to find important information. Contact your lawyer and insurance agent when it’s time to start the planning process. Remember, vigilance and proactivity are your best shield against identity theft.