Stopping thief who's opening cards in deceased mother's name

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 Dear Sally,
My mother died almost one year ago. Someone is now filling out credit card applications in her name with all her information. How do I find out who this person is? The worst-case scenario is that it’s a family member. The least-case scenario is that it’s a health care worker. I want to make sure it’s not a family member before I call the police.  – Deborah


Dear Deborah,
It seems unbelievable that someone close to a deceased person would apply for credit cards in her name. Perhaps they think of it as a victimless crime, knowing that neither your mom nor her estate will be held responsible for charges made after her death. It’s a pretty low trick, however, and it’s obviously fraud.

It’s hard to say who could be doing this. I wouldn’t just assume it’s a family member or health care worker. Credit card fraud using the information of people who have recently died is all too common. Identity thieves scan the obituaries and other public information to find names of the deceased.

A few more Internet searches, and identity thieves can find out where that person has lived, the names of her relatives, and her birth date. Some Social Security numbers of deceased people are readily available on various Internet sites. The availability of almost any information on the Internet doesn’t narrow down who is stealing your mother’s identity.

California attorney Jen Grondahl Lee, author of “Preventing Credit Card Fraud: A Complete Guide for Everyone from Merchants to Consumers,” says it will be difficult to determine who is stealing your mother’s identity, unless the card statements are being sent to the thief.

You may never find out who this identity thief is, but you should still put a stop to it. Lee says, “I recommend filing a police report with any documentation or evidence available so they can investigate who is doing it.”

Lee says, “The next thing she should do is get the person’s credit profile shut down by sending in a copy of the death certificate, along with identifying information (Social Security number, date of birth and so on), a copy of the police report, and a request that a flag be placed on the file not to issue credit.”

You’ll need to send information to the three bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Check out each website for instructions on where to send the information.

People are often reluctant to contact the police in any identity theft situation in which a family member may be suspected. However, unless you can resolve the situation yourself and you would rather do so, for instance when the suspected thief is a minor, it’s usually a good idea to get the law involved in the interest of justice.

Identity thieves need to be stopped, for everyone’s sake. We all pay more, one way or another, when conmen steal from merchants and the banking system. If it does turn out to be a family member or health care worker who hasn’t broken the law before, getting caught may deter him or her from trying it again, when they find out even small-time thefts and deceptions just aren’t worth the risk.

See related: What happens to credit card debt after death?, Daughter racks up debt on deceased dad's card

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Updated: 02-15-2019