How to stop identify theft of a deceased family member

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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Dear To Her Credit,
My son passed away in 2007. He was 22 years old, so there was no will or executor. I recently learned that my niece may have used his identity to gain credit. It sickens me that anyone can do that, especially a family member.  She is an addict and whatever helps her with money, helps her maintain her addiction. I didn't want my son's memory to be blackened by anyone, especially someone of that caliber. 

How can I check to make sure no one is using his information? He had excellent credit when he was alive.  -- Elaine


Dear Elaine,
I'm so sorry to hear of your loss.

I'm sure many people would just ignore the identity theft in this case. The estate is long settled, and no one can come after you or another family member for debts run up in your son's name. Certainly, no one is going to think your son ran up these debts, long after he has passed away.

As responsible citizens, however, we should not stand by while we know someone is committing a crime. I think it's to your credit that you want to stop anyone from using your son's name to steal to support an addiction.

Cases of "familiar fraud" -- family members stealing an identity -- are more common than people might think. Often, the theft occurs closer to the time of death, before the estate is settled. Sometimes thieves try to send bills under the name of the deceased, hoping they'll be paid along with other debts. Sometimes they steal the identity of people who have died to file tax returns in their names, claiming refunds. Other times, as in this case, they open accounts in the name of the person who died.

Here's what you should do. Because he died years ago, your son's death should already be recorded in the national death index and with the Social Security Administration.

You should check the credit bureaus and make sure they flag the account as "deceased" -- which is a permanent credit freeze. That will stop anyone from ever opening an account under that number again. The credit bureau phone numbers are:

  • Equifax 800-685-1111
  • Experian 888-397-3742
  • TransUnion 800-888-4213

Stealing the identity of your son for any reason is disrespectful as well as illegal, but people with addictions do desperate things. I hope your niece realizes that she needs help and finds it, before it's too late. In the meantime, take measures to stop her from using your son's identity, but rest assured that no one can tarnish his name or take away memories of the life that he lived.

See related: How to tell if a 'friend' stole your identity, Daughter racks up debt on deceased dad's card

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Updated: 01-21-2019