Identity theft is the fraudulent use of someone else’s personal information to open credit cards or obtain money.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 17.6 million residents in the United States experienced someone stealing their personal information last year. Some criminals take this theft one step further and steal the identity of someone who is deceased.The act of stealing a deceased person’s identity and using it as one’s own is known as ghosting. Typically, the motives for ghosting aren’t as simple as regular identity theft. The “ghoster,” or person stealing the identity isn’t just interested in financial gain and doesn’t switch from one person’s credit to another’s as quickly. Usually that person wants to assume that identity completely and selects the information of someone deceased so as to not raise suspicions of two people using the same social security number.
There are many reasons to do this, it could be because they are trying to get a fresh start away from a bad marriage or criminal record or they may have entered the country illegally and need a way to find employment.
This phenomenon was more popular in the twentieth century because of the lack of computer records before the 1990’s. Minimal communication between states meant that it was much easier to use someone else’s identity. In the mid 1900’s, ghosting became common enough that pamphlets were written on the topic. One in particular, the Paper Trip published by Eden Press gave explicit instructions on how to acquire the identity of a deceased person.
Some tips included finding a whole family that had died while vacationing away from their home state. This way no immediate relatives would question the use of the identity and the birth and death certificates would not come from the same place, making it more likely that those from the state of residence would not know of the death.
Ghosters look for a person that is similar in age and appearance, often times thieves can find enough information in obituaries to find a person that looks the same; from there it is easy to go through the social security office’s death master file and pay a fee to obtain the social security number. It is said that it’s easier for a woman to obtain a new identity because time between jobs can be explained away as a stay at home mother, also if the deceased woman was married, the birth and death certificate would have different names.
So how does one protect their deceased family member’s identity? There are several steps one can take to prevent this from happening although just as with regular identity theft, no one is one hundred percent safe. Some steps to take are limiting the amount of information published in the obituary and requesting official copies of the death certificate to send to all insurance companies, reporting companies, and banks that would have private information about the deceased person.
Make sure to report the death to social security and the department of motor vehicles, also when closing bank accounts request that the account be flagged as “account holder deceased”.