"This shouldn’t fall on loved ones. There is not much I can do,” Lindsey Reichheld said.
Reichheld felt hopeless when she found out the identity of her wife Amy had been stolen after she died.
"It’s a very devious and fairly smart way of stealing someone’s identity because they are not there to care," Reichheld said.
Consumer experts say this story is all too common nowadays.
"The number and sophistication of identity theft schemes is unfortunately growing,” John Sours, the director of the Georgia Department of Law’s Consumer Protection Unit said.
Thieves are no longer just targeting the living. They are going after your friends, family, and loved ones even after they have passed away.
"The people who are stealing the identity could care less. They are amoral,” Sours said. “This is just a convenient thing for them to do. They’ve been waiting for the opportunity and they’re going to take advantage of it if they can."
According to AARP, every year the identities of nearly 2.5 million deceased Americans are used to fraudulently open credit card accounts, apply for loans, file for fake tax returns, and much more. Sours says his office sees hundreds of these cases a year.
"There are just any number of ways and any number of places where the fact of death of a person gets reported or recorded. they know where all of them are,” Sours said.
The first place thieves look for victims is in the obituaries.
"It’s recommended that you put as little personal identifying information in an obituary,” Investigator Aaron Miller with the Bibb Sheriff’s Office Financial Crimes Unit said. “You can put their age, but it’s recommended that you don’t put their date of birth, address, mother’s maiden name."
Miller calls these victims “soft targets.”
"The deceased can’t check their credit. They can’t check and they can’t file a police report,” he said.
Miller says identity thieves typically strike within six months of a person passing away and it could take years before you realize it happened.
"They’re looking for easy targets and they’re looking to exploit using any means necessary,” Miller said.
How can you protect your loved one’s identity and memory? Consumer experts say after the person has died, notify the Social Security Administration by calling 800-772-1213. You will also want to contact the IRS and the Georgia Department of Revenue.
If the deceased had a drivers license, cancel it by calling the Department of Driver Services at 678-413-8600.
You may also have to fill out a petition for Letters of Administration with your local probate court to act on behalf of the deceased.
You will also want to alert banks, insurers, mortgage companies and any other places where the the deceased held accounts with their personal information.
Consumer experts say you also want to send all three major credit reporting agencies a copy of the death certificate, including Equifax at 800-525-6285, Experian at 888-397-3742, and TransUnion at 800-680-7289.
"And obtain a copy of that credit report to see whose been asking about their credit, especially recently and you might want to check that again in a month or two,” Sours said.
Federal law entitles consumers to one free copy of your credit report each year from all three agencies. You can request them at www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228. As a Georgia resident you are also entitled to receive two additional copies of each credit report per year at no charge.
Sours realizes this may seem like a lot of work, especially during a time of sadness.
"Tragically, you can’t take month or two to grieve and then take these steps,” Sours said. “You just can’t because that’s the time when you’re most vulnerable. That’s the time when identity thieves are going to be operating."
Those who are still living are also victims.
"They may lose something that would have been given to them or they would have inherited otherwise,” Miller said.
If you follow these steps, experts say you will minimize the chances of someone stealing your loved one’s identity and allow them to rest in peach.
Miller says many of these crimes go unreported because people may be overwhelmed or embarrassed if the suspect turns out to be a family member.
If you believe your loved one is a victim of identity theft, call your local law enforcement agency and notify the Georgia Department of Law’s Consumer Protection Unit at 404-651-8600.