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Identity thieves rob the dead, exploiting their grieving families

OKLAHOMA CITY - A carpenter by trade, George's family says he could build or fix just about anything.

“He taught us to do everything, ride bikes, ride motorcycles,” daughter Jennifer said. “If it had a motor on it, then we were riding it.”

Ever since his death, Jennifer says her family's been riding a roller coaster of emotions.

Someone keeps trying to exploit them.

“While I wasn't thinking about criminals, while I'm planning my dad's funeral, apparently they were thinking about us,” Jennifer said.

It's called "ghosting.”

Criminals troll obituaries hoping to steal the identities of the deceased, adding even more pain to the grieving process.

“Days after the funeral, my mom calls and says that she got a notice from Discover that a PIN had been set up on their account,” Jennifer said.

The scammer was able to open up credit in George's name.

“$800 dollars had been charged in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on their Discover Card.

The IRS says each year, thieves use the identities of millions of deceased Americans to fraudulently open credit card accounts, apply for loans and tax refunds, or get cellphone, utility or medical services in someone else’s name. 

Cyber Security Expert, Geoff Wilson, says it's not possible for the dead to monitor their credit and their loved ones likely aren't doing it either with so much on their minds.

“Once you become deceased, it takes a while for that information to propagate throughout the system and make it to the credit bureaus, to make it to the IRS,” he said.

Sometimes, it can take months for them to get your death certificate and update their records.

Jennifer said, “One thing that I did not thinkI needed to do right then in my list of planning the funeral was locking down my dad's credit.”

Friends Dianne Burk-Martin and Gene Bergstresser lost their dads around the same time as Jennifer.

“You've just lost a loved one [and] you're in a fog,” Diane said. “You're in a daze.”

Dianne didn't think twice about publishing her father's birth date, middle name, hometown, and his mother's maiden name, in his obituary, that is until the scam calls started.

“Immediately after the funeral, people were still at my mom's house, we get another phone call,” Diane said. “This guy said, ‘Mrs. Burk,’ he wanted to speak to Mrs. Burk, ‘Your husband has a debt that needs to be resolved.’”

Diane says her mom was really upset.

Gene did get warned by the funeral home.

He said, “We had already planned to go ahead and publish a full obituary since there is so much information on the internet.”

He put a credit freeze on his dad's account right away.

“This was from Chase and it's actually a declining of a Disney Visa Platinum account,” Gene said.

Instead of waiting on the funeral home to notify the three major credit bureaus, these families jumped into action putting a fraud alert on their dad's credit report, something you can do over the phone.

Once the death certificate arrived, they sent copies to the credit bureaus requesting a "deceased, do not issue credit" flag be put on their dad's credit file.

Jennifer wishes she would have started monitoring things sooner.

“Once I knew he was ill and would not be using credit, then I would have locked it down,” she said.

Dead or alive, your identity has major value on the black market.

Social security numbers are selling cheap and fast.

“They're anywhere from one to eight dollars per record,” Geoff said. “With the full identity, credit cards, they can be upwards of $75 on the black market.”

We asked Geoff to show us just how easy it easy to hawk and buy stolen information on the dark web.

He showed us someone’s credit card information from a card that expires in 2019.

Public, online forums are publishing your stolen information by the bulk for anyone to grab. 

We pulled up social security numbers and other sensitive information belonging to people in Tuttle, Oklahoma City, and Edmond.

One person who posted the information was asking for payment in digital currency to keep his identity hidden.

Geoff said, “They say, ‘Email me if you want to buy more SSN's, Bitcoin only.’”

We tried warning some of the Oklahoma victims.

The only one who answered was Carol from Edmond.

She responded, “Oh my word, [my information] out there, oh my.”

The website “have i been pwned" lets you search across known data breaches.

I put in my email address and it came back that my information had been compromised four times. Geoff recommends everyone do a credit freeze.

You get to pull three free credit reports each year at annualcreditreport.com.

If a loved one passes pull their report, then do it again a couple of weeks later.

When writing the obituary try to leave out details, like middle name, birth date, birthplace, and mother's maiden name.

Jennifer said, “Grieving families are a target of criminals who will try to come after their credit and apply for credit in their name.”

All three of the families appear to be on top of things now.

  • They suggest making at least a dozen or so copies of the death certificate.
  • That way you can send them to the IRS, credit bureaus, social security administration, and creditors.