Editor's note: Action Line is a weekly column from the Better Business Bureau answering consumers' questions and concerns about money and business issues.
Dear Action Line,
My co-worker was telling me that although her mom passed away more than six months ago, she recently began receiving credit card applications in the mail under her mom's name. She thought it was a little suspicious so she decided to check with the three main credit report agencies. She found that her mom's identity had been stolen after she died and someone had been running up credit in her name. Is this common? How does that happen?
Unfortunately, yes, this does happen.
We've found that nearly 2.5 million deceased Americans have their identity stolen every year. It seems impossible but it's happening. There are several ways a thief can get your information. One way is by reading the obituaries. They look for personal information such as a birthday, mother's maiden name and address.
Thieves work quickly using the stolen identity to purchase trips, cars, electronics, etc., while you're dealing with your grief and tending to your loved one's personal affairs. Experts tell us that upon a death, contact each credit reporting bureau: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Have them flag the account as "deceased." This stops the chance of credit being used.
You then want to contact the Social Security office, banks, investment companies, insurance companies and, if applicable, the mortgage company. You will need to provide an original copy of the death certificate for each of the entities you contact. Each will then mark the account as closed due to death of the account holder. If there are joint accounts, simply remove the name of the deceased.
Another way a fraudster can get the information is by chance. They randomly make up a Social Security number and hope it matches the number of someone who has died. Also, unfortunately, Uncle Sam has made social security numbers available in the Death Master File, which is widely available on the internet.
Now is a prime time for fraudsters to use this method of ID theft as it's tax season. A fraudulent tax return using the deceased person's Social Security number works great for a con artist to make money via refunds.
One more way a thief can steal an identity is through a family member. As hard as it is to imagine a family member doing such a thing, just know it happens.
As unfair as it seems to have to think of identity theft while you're grieving, handling these matters as soon as possible may just save you extra heartache in the years to come.
-- Joey Fernandez is assistant director of business services for the Better Business Bureau serving Central California. Send your consumer concerns, questions and problems to Action Line at the Better Business Bureau, 1601 H St., Suite 101, Bakersfield, CA 93301 or firstname.lastname@example.org. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.