The risk of identity theft doesn't stop once a person passes away. Nearly 800,000 dead people are intentionally targeted in the United States each year, according to a study by ID Analytics, a subsidiary of LifeLock.
Add to that scammers who unintentionally come up with a real deceased person's Social Security number when making up information for fake IDs, and the identities of about 2.5 million deceased Americans are misused every year.
While some of the misuse comes from relatives of the deceased, identity thieves outside the family often find the Social Security numbers of their dead victims by accessing the Death Master File.
The file is distributed by the Social Security Administration to state and local governments, hospitals, financial institutions and universities, among other legitimate entities. However, anyone can pay for access to the files.
This kind of identity theft puts a cruel burden on families of deceased victims, but people who are incorrectly listed as dead can find themselves as targets, too.
The Social Security Administration mistakenly marks 14,000 living individuals as dead each year, according to CNN.
Sue Atkinson recently told WSB-TV that she didn't know Social Security had listed her as dead until she saw her monthly Social Security automatic deposits had been reversed and she got a letter of condolence from American Express asking how her balance would be handled.
The Social Security Administration mistakenly marked Carol Ellis as deceased on the same day they were entering information about her deceased daughter Christina, Ellis told CBS Chicago last month.
Scammers often find their victims online and then combine that information with Social Security numbers to file fraudulent tax returns, open new accounts or commit other types of financial fraud. To protect their deceased loved ones from identity theft, experts suggest withholding details such as the day and month of birth and addresses in obituaries.
Other protection steps include notifying the credit bureaus of the death and keeping an eye out for warning signs, such as pre-approved credit cards or new bills.