Q: My dad passed away last month. In today's world of identify theft, do I need to notify the credit agencies of his passing so no one can open credit in his name? —Patty, New Mexico
A: Yes, you should notify all three of the major credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion -- says Eva Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides free assistance to id theft victims.
And do it quickly. "When a person is deceased, the Social Security Administration will eventually contact the credit bureaus and share that information," says Neal O'Farrell, executive director of The Identity Theft Council, another nonprofit resource. "But that can often take many months. Thieves won’t hesitate to take advantage of the grief family members might be going through, so the sooner you can alert the credit bureaus, the lower the risk."
If you are a spouse or other family member, or the executor of the dead person's estate, there are a few moves that can help you ensure that the person's credit file is closed and cannot be used by thieves. If there are several surviving family members, pick a single point person; Velasquez suggests you bundle these tasks with calls to banks and other financial institutions.
- Before reaching out to the credit bureaus, pull the person's credit reports to get a clear sense of what financial accounts may still be open, O'Farrell says. You can do this for free at annualcreditreport.com; you'll need to know basic information like full name, address, Social Security number, and birthdate. You'll also need enough familiarity with the person to be able to pass the site's multiple-choice security questions, which can range from prior addresses to which bank holds a current mortgage.
- Contact each of the creditors listed in the credit reports and notify them that the person is deceased. The creditors should then close the accounts and begin any steps necessary if they're owed money by the estate.
- Then write to the three main credit bureaus notifying them that the person has died and requesting that they add that note to their credit file. "That will make sure that new credit cannot be granted in that person’s name," says O'Farrell. You have to write to the bureaus, not just call them, because you will need to provide a copy of the death certificate and evidence that you're the executor or have the legal right to request these actions. "Send the letters certified, with a request for a confirmation of receipt, just in case," O'Farrell says.
- In addition to telling creditors, Velasquez says, you should also notify the Social Security Administration, especially if the deceased was collecting any kind of government benefit.
This kind of identity theft can cause loved ones to feel violated and emotionally drained, but at least it can be contained, Velasquez says. She notes that she has never dealt with a case where the theft has caused any financial burden.