Are You in Danger of Theft & Identity Fraud?

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The death of a loved one is a stressful time for any family.  Although it is appalling to think that this actually happens, unscrupulous people can use a heartfelt obituary written about your loved one as a treasure map to profit from their identity and steal their possessions.

We will explain how obituaries and death notices can make you vulnerable to identity and property theft.  We will also give you 17 practical (and proven) protection strategies that you MUST use to prevent your loved one’s identity and personal belongings from being stolen by criminals.

What is Identity Theft, and How Worried Should You Be About It?

Identity theft is where a criminal obtains personal details about a person and uses those details to pretend to be that person.

Identity theft is perpetrated to gain access to someone else’s benefits (e.g. social security), or to obtain credit (e.g. ordering goods online), or to access some other resource (e.g. bank account; tax return monies).

Experts agree that identity theft is likely to surpass traditional theft as the leading form of property crime.  While other forms of identity theft are more common, criminals are increasingly targeting deceased people and often find their victims from trolling obituaries.

According to a recent study by ID Analytics, a data company based in San Diego, the personal details of nearly 2.5 million deceased Americans are used every year to illegally apply for credit products and services.  The study also found that fraudsters use the identities of the deceased at a rate of more than 2,000 per day.

The findings from the study came from comparing the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers in relation to 100 million applications made during the first three months of the year 2011 with data in the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File.

Fraudsters count on the fact that the deceased’s family is in mourning and not paying attention to the deceased person’s finances or personal information.

Identity theft compounds a family’s grief.  On the heels of a great personal tragedy, it can be devastating to learn that people tried to profit from the loss of your loved one.

Eight weeks after 18 year-old Gregory Welch died in a car crash, his grieving parents, Virginia and Kenneth Welch, discovered that someone had stolen his identity and used it to submit a falsified tax claim.

Kathy Hieatt reported on this case for The Virginian-Pilot in an article posted on September 10, 2013.  In her article, she states that Virginia and Kenneth did not feel anger towards the boy that was driving the car when their son died, despite the fact he had been speeding and was jailed for involuntary manslaughter.

But they were livid at whoever stole Gregory’s identity.  “It was just kind of like being punched in the stomach,” said Mrs. Welch.  “It’s such a dishonour to our son.”

Obituaries & Identity Theft Protection Strategies

A good rule of thumb when publishing an obituary or death notice is to leave out any information that would likely be needed to by a fraudster to open a bank account, apply for a credit card, or submit and insurance claim.

For example, do not include the deceased’s:

  • Middle name;
  • Maiden name;
  • Exact date of birth; and
  • Exact home address (you can include the name of the city).

If you are tempted to include these details in the obituary or death notice because you feel it is “proper” to include them, remember that they are the kind of leads that identity thieves use to get the ball rolling.  It is far better to err on the side of caution and go easy on personal details.

Opening the Door to Property Theft with an Obituary

Unfortunately, home robberies while families are attending funerals are all too common.  Go ahead and Google: “house robbed while family at funeral”.  The results are shocking.

According to a Toronto Sun article by Chris Doucette, first posted on February 7, 2014, mourners across Toronto have been targeted in a string of residential robberies what occur while they are at a funeral service.  At least three homes were hit within one week, but that “may just be the tip of the iceberg”.

Investigators suspect that homes are targeted from obituaries published in newspapers and online.  They are trying to determine if the robberies are being perpetrated by an organized crime group.

As already noted above, it is important not to include the exact home address of the deceased in the obituary.  Including this information is like holding up a big sign to potential criminals saying: “Hey guys! This address will be unattended between 1-3pm on Thursday because we’ll be at the funeral.  Have at it!”

While the deceased may have achieved great personal and financial success, you should save your accolades for the eulogy.  Be careful about mentioning this in the obituary, as it might make the deceased’s home an even more attractive target for burglars.

If you are part of the deceased’s immediate family, you need to take precautions to ensure your home isn’t robbed while you are at the funeral service.  If the deceased did not live with you, you need to ensure that his or her home is also secured.

Your protection strategy should start with locking all windows and doors and ensuring that the home security alarm is activated before you leave for the funeral service.  If the home doesn’t have a security alarm, you should seriously consider having a security company monitor the house while you are at the funeral.  At the very least, ask a friend or neighbour to watch the house.

More Protection Strategies

Besides using personal details sparingly in your obituary or death notice, there are other strategies you should use to protect the deceased from property and identity theft.

As soon as possible after their passing, you should make sure that you contact the Canadian government and notify them of the death.  To do this you will need to provide a copy of their death certificate.  This step is crucial because the majority of a person’s identity is intimately connected to his or her social insurance number

You should make sure that you void the deceased’s driver’s license as it contains a great deal of personal information that identity thieves would love to get their hands on, including the deceased’s date of birth, home address and photograph.  The same holds true for passports.

Notify banks and other financial institution where the deceased had accounts and make sure that all the deceased’s accounts are frozen or closed.  This makes it difficult for potential thieves to fraudulently use the deceased’s identity to access his or her money.

Cut up all credit and debit cards, even ones that are past their expiry dates.  While the card may have expired, criminals may still be able to use the account number on the card.

You should also ensure that the deceased’s personal information is not left in the house if the home is no longer occupied.

Another important protection strategy is shredding or destroying sensitive personal documents before tossing them into the garbage or recycling.  For example: old income tax returns, insurance forms, copies of credit applications, cheques, bank transaction records any financial statements.   (Just be sure not to destroy any paperwork that is needed to settle the deceased’s estate.  For example, records of any outstanding debts, insurance valuations, information that will be need to file their post-death tax return.)

Shredding or destroying documents will help defeat dumpster divers looking for paperwork that could yield nuggets of information that they can use.

If the deceased’s home is unoccupied, it is essential that you stop the mail from being delivered.  The Post Office will charge a fee for this service, but it is well worth it.

You should also cancel all utility services.  There have been cases where fraudsters have called utility companies pretending to be the deceased and gleaned personal information about the deceased.  For example, by pretending to check that the company has their correct personal details.

Identity thieves rely on the fact that it often takes a while for family members to sort out their deceased loved one’s financial affairs.  They also rely on families not questioning “mystery” debts and assuming that the deceased incurred them.

Immediacy is key to reducing the risk of identity and property theft.  Notify the Government, financial institutions and utility companies about the death as soon as possible.  Criminals won’t waste any time, so you cannot afford to either.

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Take-Aways (Protection Strategies You Must Use!)

When writing an obituary or death notice:

  • Don’t use the deceased’s middle name;
  • Don’t use the deceased’s maiden name;
  • Don’t give the exact date of birth; and
  • NEVER EVER give the exact home address!

During the funeral:

  • Have the deceased’s home alarm on (and all doors and windows locked); and
  • Hire a security company, or have a friend or neighbor watch the home.

Before or Immediately After the Funeral:

  • Cancel the deceased’s social insurance number;
  • Cancel any government benefits (e.g. old age pension; welfare; veteran’s benefits);
  • Cancel the deceased’s driver’s licence;
  • Cancel the deceased’s passport;
  • Cancel the deceased’s credit cards and cut them up (including expired cards);
  • Close all bank accounts and cut up all bank cards;
  • Cancel all utilities;
  • Put a hold on the mail service (or have the mail redirected);
  • Shred or destroy all personal documents of the deceased that are not required to settle the estate;
  • Check all financial records for any purchases made in the deceased’s name AFTER the date of his or her death;
  • Order a credit report for the deceased at regular intervals to ensure activity hasn’t occurred after the deceased died.

We’d Love to Hear From You

Did you find this article helpful?  Are there other protection strategies that should be on our list?  Let us know your thoughts!