You have made it through caregiving and now your loved one has passed away. Aside from the inherent emotional turmoil, you find yourself dealing with another round of logistics. At that time, we may not be in our best mindset and thus become susceptible to scam artists and crooks that will take advantage in any way they can. Here are some things to watch out for. This is an excerpt from my book: I’ll Be Right There: A Guidebook for Adults Caring for Their Aging Parents but applies to anyone who has lost a loved one. 

The Obituary        

You may have perhaps heard stories of people who read the obituaries in big cities to get a jump on a new apartment that might have just come available. You may have heard about funeral homes that try to get as much money out of grieving families as possible and yet others are the most gracious and loving places to be when someone passes because they “get it.” Perhaps you’ve watched crime dramas where you see burglars looking for homes that will be empty because everyone will be at the funeral. These are all real situations. There are horrible, opportunistic people who prey on grieving families. Don’t let yourself be scammed or manipulated. Plan ahead. Be cautious in what you leak to the world. Not only your friends and family see what you post or display!

Sid Kirchheimer, author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling, wrote an article in the AARP Bulletin in March 2018 titled “Death Notice Double-Cross: Be careful with obituaries—scam artists are reading.” I hope you never have to deal with any of this, but just for your information:

When obituaries are published in newspapers, on websites, and in social media (so easy to get the word out to everyone now), be aware that this information can spoon feed scammers the precise nuggets they need to reach out to you in your time of emotional insecurity. All of the protocols you normally follow for identity safety and home security should be in place but watch out for these particular dangers. And be aware that crooks have time. They may not call right away, but will save this information for a few months and use it down the line. So today and tomorrow—be aware and on alert.

On the Day of Funeral

Don’t post the address of the deceased’s home unless someone is going to be there to watch the home while the funeral is in process.

Make sure neighbors have protection and someone watching their homes if they will be at the funeral, if you publish the address publicly.

Social Security Number 

Crooks can purchase or figure out Social Security numbers from information and history you might post in the obituary or on social media. How old someone is, where he or she was born, where they lived, etc. provides all the clues! Once the Social Security number is in hand, crooks can do all sorts of nefarious things like opening accounts, running up credit card charges, applying for loans, etc. To prevent this:

  • Send notifications to the major credit reporting bureaus and the Social Security Administration as soon as possible after death to ensure nothing can be done with that Social Security number.

  • Shut down social media for the deceased person.

  • Keep an eye on all credit card and bank statements for any charges.

Note: You can preemptively put a credit freeze on someone’s account when they reach a point of mental incapacity or when they become ill.

Grandparents Beware 

If you post the names of the children and grandchildren—as in “survived by his wife Laura, daughter Susan Smith (giving her married name) and grandchildren Sammy and Rebecca”—that gives scammers enough info to make phone calls to survivors to claim they need help. You’ve perhaps gotten the spam email or calls about someone mugged and stuck in a foreign country or someone needing money to make bail and too embarrassed to call the parents? With info from the obituary, con men could say they are trying to make it back for the funeral or heard about the death and feel like they should be there for you. If your family is prone to getting into trouble or travels a lot, have a secret code word that the person needs to use, or ask for details that only that person will know. Click. Crook hangs up and you are saved!

You Owe Us Money! 

If someone calls saying you have to pay off your dead family member’s debts and they are calling to collect, hang up. Unless you cosigned on something, you are not legally responsible. If you’re not sure, ask a lawyer. Don’t ever send money over phone or via money gram, or meet these people anywhere. Tell whomever is on the phone that the executor will handle everything after probate and you will not be discussing this with any individual debtor.

NOTE: Legitimate companies will not ask for prepaid debit cards or wire transfers. Don’t send payments to crooks.

Hidden Insurance Policies 

Using names in the obituary or social media would provide enough information for a person impersonating an insurance agent or attorney to call a survivor to claim that your parent or relative took out a policy in secret that benefits YOU (oh wow!) and you just have to pay the last premium or some kind of transfer fee to get the realistic sounding money award. WATCH OUT!!!

Your Father Wants to Talk to You from Beyond 

You will not be cursed if you don’t pay money to a clairvoyant calling from around the globe claiming to be passing on a message from the dead person. Really? Want the message and believe that your loved one would try to communicate this way? Go to someone you trust locally. No one is calling you from around the globe for this! A Ouija board is much less expensive! (BTW—I do believe people communicate from beyond the earthly plane, but I don’t think I’m getting a phone call from a stranger about this. That’s a very Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost—the movie—thing.) Again, if you want to give it a try, have a question that only the deceased person would know the answer to—nothing that could be found in media or papers lifted from the trash from your home as you’re cleaning things out.

Debts and Obligations

Some quick facts I picked up from various sources about paying a deceased person’s debts: The estate should pay for:

  • Credit card balances

  • Lease buyouts

  • Loans

  • Unpaid hospital or medical bills (check your state because, in some states, whatever balance is due after the parents’ estate pays medical expenses from existing funds, for which you might be responsible)

  • Unpaid residence fees

  • Other legitimate debts (with paperwork to follow the trail)

Medicaid may try to recover money that was paid out by Medicaid to pay for your loved one’s care from the estate.

Even if you had your parents’ Power of Attorney (which ceases to be in effect after death), unless you or your siblings have cosigned on something with your parent, you all should not be liable for any debts incurred by your parents. Check with your lawyer to be sure that things are set up that way.

The proceeds of a life insurance policy cannot be diverted away from the named beneficiaries to pay for the debts of the deceased person, but if the beneficiary has outstanding debts, creditors can and will attempt to take some or all of the payout, depending on the amount of the debt.

Social Security     

How to report a death to the government:
You should give the funeral home the deceased person’s Social Security number if you want them to make the report. If you need to report a death or apply for benefits, call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

You can speak to a Social Security representative between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. View (Social Security Administration) for any questions you might have.

This is an article originally published in Fern Pessin’s book “I’ll be Right There: a Guidebook for Adults Caring for Their Aging Parents”