And then one day a mailing caught my attention, it was from a huge on-line bank. Tearing it open the warning I issue to clients here in my legal office struck home - identity theft of the dead. Sharon -- Welcome to [insert Bank Name here]! Here are the account numbers for your new 29 savings accounts! A whirlwind of emotions ensued. Sadness for a mother who was gone from my life. Frustration for yet another task falling onto my plate, she was a widow, my father died in 2009, and I was her only child. And anger at the thieves who were attempting to steal her identity. After a few clamming breaths, I called the bank and they quickly closed the accounts with the information I provided.
Yes, identify theft of the dead is a thing. And not only just a thing, but a growing phenomenon. Why on earth would a thief want a deceased person's identity? Two main reasons come to mind. One is the quick shopping fix they can run up with credit cards, etc., before the grieving family recognizes the theft. And two, tax fraud. Apparently there are people out there who spend their days (and nights) filing fraudulent tax returns for the recently deceased. They will make up numbers for federal and state returns, file them with the appropriate authority, and have refunds deposited into on-line banking accounts they have fraudulently opened. Government agencies are under pressure to process returns before they can verify the reported numbers with the 1099s submitted by entities that paid out funds, such as employers, banks, and the like. Voila, grave robbers for modern times.
How did theses folks get enough personal information to open bank accounts for my mom? I am not sure. I have heard that the Social Security Administration has a Master Death List of Social Security Numbers of the deceased. Something comes up with a Google search, but I haven't the time to explore it more. If it is true, my anger will probably boil over -- the banner claims its purpose is to thwart identity theft. There are all of those on-line family trees with dates of births and mother's maiden names. And tricks of the trade that are well-beyond my luddite ways.
From my vantage point behind the desk of an estate planning attorney, I'd offer the following common sense moves if you wish to decrease the risk of a thief running off with your identity, or that of a loved one, after you depart the pale blue dot we call home.
- Review your will, trust (if you have one), powers of attorney for health care, and powers of attorney for finance to see if they contain your Social Security Number. If so, create new documents and shred the old. This month alone I had three new clients with this very problem -- SSN included in their dated estate plans;
- If a loved one has died and you are the Personal Representative / Executor, write a letter to the three credit bureaus stating the person has died, provide the SSN, death certificate, and paperwork putting you in charge;
- After the estate is closed, shred all statements for banks, credit unions, retirement accounts, etc.
Now I know that I can depress people. So much so that I keep a box of Frango Mints in my office for clients, who often need a pick-me-up after planning what will go where upon their death, or what would happen if that person predeceased, etc. While I cannot offer you a chocolate here, I can share a link to a lovely song I associated with that pale blue dot we call home, it is a favorite of mine, commonly heard around Earth Day, Blue Boat Home. Lyrics can be read here.