Ghosting: The most sinister form of identity theft

About 2.5 million identities are stolen each year from victims who are deceased.

The practice of stealing identities from deceased persons is commonly called “ghosting” and represents a significant threat to the surviving family members. This issue strikes particularly close to home at the moment;

When a loved one passes away it can be difficult to think about identity safety, but a few simple steps can prevent huge headaches down the road. It is my hope that others may help from this research.

These BBB guidelines are suggested for deaths at any age:

  1. Obtain at least 12 copies of the official death certificate as soon as it becomes available. It may be possible to photocopy the original, but remember that death records are public and some organizations may ask for more proof.
  2. If there is a surviving spouse or another sort of joint account holder, make sure to immediately let credit card companies, banks, stock brokers, loan/lien holders and mortgage companies of the know about the death.
  3. The executor/surviving spouse will need to discuss any outstanding debts by either transferring or closing accounts; if accounts are closed, make sure they are listed as: “Closed. Account holder is deceased.”
  4. Contact all relevant financial institutions that may need to be informed of the death and make sure to follow the correct ways. Generally, it is best to send all pertinent information in the first letter to the agency—sent via certified mail with return receipt requested, as this will speed up processing:
    • Name and Social Security number of deceased
    • Last known address
    • Last five years of addresses
    • Date of birth
    • Date of death
  5. Request copies of the decedent’s credit reports, which will show any remaining active accounts that still need to be closed and ask an alert be placed on the name to tell potential creditors to not issue any new credit.

A death in the family can be hard enough, don’t let a stolen identity make it worse.

– Adam Harkness, BBB Washington, Oregon and Alaska


1 Comment

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One response to “Ghosting: The most sinister form of identity theft

  1. Mark Burrows

    One of the oldest know form of identity theft or ghosting was those who went about graveyards jotting dates of infant names and deaths who had passed away twenty one years or more. It took little effort to obtain the birth certificate as certificates of birth and death were not kept in the same data system so, of course, did not cancel each other out. A common enough sounding name was popular, and once the birth certificate was obtained, then social security number could be applied for as well as drivers license and so on.
    This system has been countered in more recent years, but it still is not airtight. In fact, it is still used by the federal legal system in the witness protection program.
    My point is, if that system has holes in it, then you need to be much more aware when there is a death in your family.
    I have another very important item to add to that list. Make sure you never hand over any electronic device of the deceased such as computers, tablets, or cellphones until you are absolutely certain that it has been wiped clean of data. Remember, even if you think that if you reformat the hard drive that it will remove all the data, you would be wrong. It still can be extracted. Most hard drives can be wiped or have the data destroyed beyond recovery by removing the hard disk, and taking a large magnet and move the magnet in a swirl from in to out about a half inch above the drive. Do it on both sides of the drive, and do not physically touch the magnet to the drive. The downside of this method is that there is a fair chance you might render the drive useless and not be able to format it again. I have lost two drives that way, but they were small drives and inexpensive to replace.
    Still if you are not sure, consult a professional to wipe the devices clean. Point being, they should not end up in donation boxes loaded up with valuable personal data.

    Mark Burrows

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