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Beware of ‘ghosting’! Protect a loved one's identity

Check out these steps to prevent ID theft after a death

October 27, 2020

On New Year’s Day 1960, 2-year-old Tina Marie Brandon was killed in an accident in Dallas, Texas. Thirty years later, she came back to life. Or at least it appeared she had.

In 1990, Deborah Lester was able to falsify a birth certificate for Tina and get a Social Security number, according to Colorado Springs police. Lester held Tina’s identity for 28 years, opening multiple business, bank accounts and credit cards and applying for government benefits, police allege. 

Scammers are targeting the deceased to commit fraud. The term is called “ghosting,” and it takes place when scammers collect personal information about people who are recently deceased to steal their identities and commit a variety of different fraudulent acts.

Ghosting usually takes place in the six-month window of time between a person’s death and the reporting of that death by the Social Security Administration, financial institutions and other agencies. Scammers may attempt to gain access to bank accounts, apply for credit cards, or even file for tax returns.

If you have a loved one that has recently passed, here are some tips you can use to protect their identity:

Limit information that is publicly available

  • Limit private information that is shared publicly. Obituaries let potential scammers know of a death and can be used as a source to begin collecting information. Include the deceased’s age but not his or her date of birth. By limiting other information like full name, mother’s maiden name, name of relatives and home address you can limit the immediate access a scammer has available to them.
  • Protect sensitive information from family and friends. Keep access to important passwords, credit, financial and other sensitive documents limited to a small trusted group.
  • Delete or memorialize the loved one’s social media accounts.  Go here for a guide to addressing accounts on several popular social media sites.

Secure important documents

  • Look for several documents to ensure you have a complete idea of the status of the various accounts your loved one has. Obtain 10 copies of the death certificate; many institutions will require this as proof of death to take action on the account.
  • Collect other important documents, including the will, marriage and birth certificates, tax returns from the last two years, copies of credit reports, copies of insurance information and policies and all identification documents.

Notify financial institutions

  • Get in contact with any financial account that is linked to your deceased loved one. Notify their banks, credit cards and mortgage companies. If an account is listed only in that person’s name, ask for that account to be closed.

Notify government institutions

  • Ask the Social Security Administration to flag a person’s Social Security number after they have passed. This can prevent scammers from changing addresses and bank accounts where benefits are collected. You can call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 to report a death.
  • Notify the Department of Transportation to cancel the deceased’s license; this will help prevent anyone from requesting an additional license.

Notify credit reporting agencies

  • Contact Equifax, Experian and Trans Union and ask for a “deceased alert” be put on the individual’s credit report. The Identity Theft Resource Center has instructions on this issue.
  • Check their credit score three months after the death to make sure there are no discrepancies.

Learn more

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has created a new page on its website, “Steps Following the Death of a Loved One,” which contains a checklist to prevent identity theft and answer questions regarding debt collection, hospital and funeral bills, and other issues. The page includes contact information for the credit reporting agencies as well as other resources for families.

If you believe your loved one’s identity has been stolen, report it to the Federal Trade Commission.

To file a complaint with our office, go to:  


Phone: 515-281-5926 (toll-free number outside of the Des Moines area: 888-777-4590) 

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