How a widow should handle collection calls on late husband's 'debt'

Identity theft can create mystery debt; scammers may claim nonexistent ones

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
My father died 4 1/2 years ago and had no debt at that time. My mother survives and is very frugal. She is getting collection calls that my father owes $33,000. At 83, this confuses and upsets her because we know the claim is false. How can I tell if someone stole my father's identity? And what can I do about it? -- Denise

Answer for the expert

Dear Denise,
I'm sorry to hear about your father. It's hard to believe people take advantage of a person's death for personal gain, but it's all too common. For example, some creditors try to jump in line to get paid before the estate is settled (which they generally can't do), and I have heard of cable companies insisting they should be paid for the month after a subscriber died. Some unscrupulous operators send bogus medical bills after a person dies of an illness, hoping family members will just pay up.

It sounds as if someone has gone a step further in your dad's case and has stolen his identity. Unfortunately, this isn't hard to do. Thieves glean personal information from obituaries and other records and hope they don't get caught. Stealing $33,000 is pretty brazen, however. It's not as if that won't be noticed!

There is some chance it isn't technically a case of stolen identity -- it could be just a rogue collector with a bogus claim. The results are much the same.

Either way, you need to get to the bottom of this immediately:

  1. If the collectors call, have your mother tell them not to contact her by telephone again. Have her get their address so you can write to them instead. Phone calls from collectors are seldom productive, and even if she came to an agreement, she can't prove what they said. Further, federal law requires them to stop calling her if she tells them to.
  2. Pull credit reports for both your parents to check for unauthorized activity. If a thief ran up one account using your dad's name, it's hard to know what else he's been up to! You can get a free credit report every year from each of the three credit bureaus at
  3. Request validation of the $33,000 debt using this sample verification of debt request letter. (A previous column of mine can give you more information about debt validation.)
  4. If it appears someone fraudulently opened an account in your father's name, go to the police and file an identity theft report.
  5. Send a copy of the police report to the collector and to any other bogus creditors you find on the credit report.
  6. Make sure the credit reporting bureaus are on notice that your father has passed away. It's not a bad idea also to sign your mother up for a 90-day fraud alert at the credit bureaus, too. That will make it so creditors must actually call her at the number she provides before they can approve new accounts of any kind.

Collection calls can be very upsetting to anyone. Picture a bereaved widow who, up until four years ago, had no debt whatsoever and is now being harassed about a huge, bogus bill! By taking the steps above, starting with instructions to your mother not to try to reason with collectors on the phone, however, you can intervene for her and set her mind at ease.

Your mother will probably need more help as time goes by -- it's an inevitable part of life. At least she is trusting and leaning on you so you can help her. She is fortunate to have you looking out for her interests.

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See related: Debt collection sample letters, Debt collectors must prove the debt is yours, Credit card law compels speedy estate settlement for debt after death

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Updated: 11-24-2017