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I've just heard a horror story from a colleague about his deceased brother's identity being stolen. My mother is at death's door, and I want to do whatever is necessary to protect her in life and in death. Any suggestions? — Samuel Son

Dear Mr. Son: According to AARP, each year thieves steal the identities of at least 2.5 million deceased Americans. Nearly 800,000 are deliberately targeted ("ghosting"), often using information found in newspaper obituaries. (I've cautioned about ghosting in Consumer Watch a number of times.)

Sometimes these scum balls use info gleaned from hospitals or funeral homes. But whatever the avenue, what's really scary is that armed with the right information, an ID thief can purchase a person's Social Security number from the Internet for as little as $10. This time of year, crooks file tax returns under the names of our dead loved ones and collect refunds; in fact, in 2014, the last recorded date, these refunds would have totaled over $14 billion had they reached the scammers. This amount didn't even count the boo-coos of bucks that still made their financial way into criminals' pockets.

So what can we do to thwart the thieves?

* First off, never list the birth date, mother's maiden name, or other personal information in obituaries. Additionally, listing the person's home address is an open invitation to Tommy Thief to drive off with the household furnishings while everyone's attending the funeral.

* Secondly, send a certified copy of the death certificate, return receipt requested, to each of the three credit reporting agencies - Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion - and ask each to place a "Deceased Alert" on the credit reports. Also, mail death certificates to any bank, mortgage company, insurer, credit card company, and so forth and state you are immediately closing these accounts or, in the case of a joint account, removing the dead person. Have each of the former flagged with "Closed: Account Holder is Deceased."

* Call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to report the death. Additionally, contact the DMV to cancel the driver's license to prevent scammed duplicates from being issued.

* After a few weeks, go to www.annualcreditreport.com to see if there has been any suspicious activity on two of the three. Do the same after several months and check the third credit reporting agency.

* Go online to www.idtheftcenter.org and type "deceased" in the search box for further information. The app is a tool that provides, anytime 24/7, the proven assistance of the free Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC).

Contact Ellen Phillips at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com.

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Ellen Phillips
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