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Identity Thieves Do This to 2.5 Million People Per Year. Here's How to Stop it.

Adjusting to life after the loss of a close loved one is no easy feat. The days immediately following are no exception, as the surviving family must handle funeral arrangements, insurance policies and wills.

Unfortunately, tragedy can be cut short by fear as the family realizes that their departed relative has became a victim of identity theft. Fraud prevention firm ID Analytics revealed the identities of nearly 2.5 million deceased Americans are misused each year.

Credit issues can be a huge hurdle if you're applying for a VA home loan as well. Thankfully, Veterans United's Lighthouse program can coach you through credit problems and help you achieve your dream of homeownership.

Here's how you can protect the memory of your loved ones and prevent identity theft after death.

So Wrong, So Easy

According to Steven Toporoff, an attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, identity thieves often target the deceased. They troll obituaries for details on the departed or misuse information from the Social Security Administration's Death Master File, which lists the Social Security numbers of people who have died. While the list is intended to prevent fraud, it can be abused – especially if creditors aren't checking it, Toporoff said.

"Stealing of the dead is so wrong, and so easy," McAfee consultant and identity theft expert Robert Siciliano said. "It is made even easier by public records."

In this case, easy certainly isn't cheap. The Death Master File was made public under the Freedom of Information Act in 1980, although those who wish to access the information must pay a hefty subscription cost – upwards of $7,000.

Unsuspecting Victims

Before dying at age 72 from an aneurysm, Johnnie Salter had only had two credit cards in his entire life.

So when Salter's sister, Billie Crane, discovered 21 credit applications made in her brother's name in the two weeks following his death, she was nothing short of alarmed.

"A new car and about $10,000 had been charged," Crane told NBC. "It's bad enough to steal someone's identity and ruin their credit history. To do it to a dead man, and to his family so shortly after his death, it's just terrible."

Just by getting his name, an identify thief was able to purchase Salter's Social Security and account number. The thief then sold the information to multiple people with bad credit for as much as $600 each.

"When a loved one dies, and there's so much else going on, you really don't think about having to protect their name and reputation," Crane said. "But unfortunately, you really have to."

Prevention equals Protection

Even in the midst of tragedy, protecting the personal information of a loved one is one of the most important things you can do to preserve their memory. While you might not be able to stop an identity thief from obtaining public records, you can control how the thief is able to use that information. If taken immediately, the following six steps can ensure the financial security of your departed loved one before identity thieves even have a chance to act.

  1. Request at least a dozen original copies of the death certificate. The death certificate is an essential document that will need to be provided to any financial institution you contact, and they won't accept anything less than an original copy. Getting multiple copies the first time around really speeds up the entire process.
  2. Notify the Social Security Administration. This is a legal responsibility, but it could also expedite the rest of the protection process. The Social Security Administration can be reached at 1-800-772-1213.
  3. Notify all relevant financial institutions. Contact any institution the deceased relative had an account with, alerting them of the death and providing proper documentation, such as the death certificate, to close the accounts.
  4. Notify the three credit bureaus. With proper documentation provided, the three credit bureaus can flag the person's account as "deceased." This places a permanent credit freeze on the account, so creditors and other financial institutions are unable to grant any future lines of credit in the person's name. (Experian: 888-397-3742; TransUnion: 800-888-4213; Equifax: 800-685-1111)
  5. Keep the obituary short and succinct. While it's often used as tribute to the deceased individual, it's also a primary tool used by identity thieves to collect information. The more information you provide, the more they have to use. Don't include birth date, mother's maiden name, home address or any other personal information that would be required to open a credit card or bank account.
  6. Protect the death certificate. Only provide it to the institutions that absolutely need it to close the deceased's accounts. Otherwise, all copies should be locked in a safe place and the location of which should be known to few.