Thursday, March 26, 2015

Welcome Sharon!: Modern Day Grave Robbers

Over the past year I have grown accustomed to flipping through the mail at home and seeing at least one mailing addressed to my mother, at our home address rather than the 1121 Valley Stream Drive of my childhood.  She, my mother, left this earthly world February 16th of 2014, but her junk mail lives on.  Most of the time I mark the enveloped "deceased", leaving it for the carrier to cart off the next day, hoping the life insurance company or peddler of products to keep seniors in their homes will update their mailing lifts.  Sharon no longer needs their services.

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.


Rebecca Petersen said...

Thanks for sharing this. While it's not the happiest topic, I'd rather think about it and plan for it now than when I'm struggling with the affairs of a loved one. You are an amazing resource!

CJ said...

It's odd the bank didn't question why someone was opening 29 savings accounts. Maybe big companies do this on a regular basis, but I would think they would tend toward fewer large accounts.

I also wonder what the criminals look like. Are they sitting home doing this, or do they have an office with a computer program, perhaps with an employee who doesn't realize they're involved in a criminal enterprise.

Melinda Gustafson Gervasi said...

Thank you for reading, and taking the time to comment. One way to process the hard things I hear at work is to bend them into an educational, and sometimes entertaining blog post. Planning in advance, to any extent, is a gift to those you leave behind.

As for the thieves, I have no idea what their operation looks like -- but I would bet money it is high-tech and all the new accounts were opened on-line.

Watch for more in the future -- that was way too long of a break between posts.

Gail said...

In 2007-8 I had a running joke with the mail carrier about whether the living or the dead were getting more mail at my house. I stayed ahead while I was competing with my late husband, but when I changed my dad's address after his death I started getting mail for him & for my mom (who died in 2004, before my dad moved to his last apartment.) I'm grateful that nobody created 29 new accounts for any of them. The most ironic was the letter from AARP telling my deceased husband that his life expectancy had never been better. I was glad it arrived 6 months after his death, (when he would have turned 50) not 6 weeks. I'm currently getting credit card offers for a woman who lived with me briefly 4 years ago. I've been shredding them. Maybe I should return to sender.

Melinda Gustafson Gervasi said...

Gail -- I loved your comment, and thought of it Saturday when the days mail was entirely addressed to my mother! Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, and be well!

Unknown said...

I feel a lot more people need to read this, very good info!......
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