August 25, 2015

Be On Guard to Thwart Fraud Following a Death in the Family

Holland & Knight Private Wealth Services Blog
Shari A. Levitan

When there is a death in your family, it is important to be aware of unscrupulous people during this difficult and vulnerable time. Because obituaries typically include the times for funeral and memorial services, it is advisable to not leave your home unattended during these events. Also, beware of cold calls and letters asking for personally identifying information or demanding payment.

In today's world, the potential for fraud is exponentially greater, with phishing emails seeking information “necessary” for probate or tax purposes and the ability for thieves to file fraudulent tax returns claiming refunds. Thieves are now reaching new lows by scrolling through online obituaries to figure out ways to wreak fiscal havoc on the deceased’s estate. With very little information – sometimes just the details from the obituary – these criminals are able to open new credit accounts in the deceased’s name, make purchases and contract for services, all before a death certificate is issued from the local city, and sometimes before the Social Security Administration has been notified of the death by the family, funeral home or lawyer.

Grieving families need to be especially vigilant to watch for unusual patterns in emails, phone calls and correspondence, such as misspellings, incorrect syntax, email address that are not quite right, phone calls demanding information or there will be dire consequences, and not assume that all communications they receive are legitimate.

In addition, the required tax reporting for estate tax purposes calls for detailed account information, which should only be transmitted securely by regular mail. If the deceased was not married, it may be prudent to notify the credit reporting bureaus so that no additional credit can be obtained, and to cancel every credit card. However, where there is a surviving spouse, it’s important to consider whether all of the credit is in the deceased spouse’s name, with the surviving widow having only a companion credit card. This is often the case for older widows. In such situations, it may be best to keep one or two of the credit cards while the widow establishes her own credit so that she is not left without the use of a credit card.

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