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Identity Theft: 2.5 Million Dead Americans Have Their Social Security Numbers Stolen

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Call it financial grave robbing.

Each year the identities of nearly 2.5 million deceased Americans are used to open credit cards, apply for loans, get cell phones and conduct other financial transactions, according to a new study.

The study is the first to put a number on identity theft of the deceased, according to ID Analytics, the data analysis company that conducted the study.

"We see fraudsters intentionally using identities of the deceased at the rate of more than 2,000 per day," said Stephen Coggeshall, the chief technology officer at ID Analytics, in a statement. "Surviving family members can also be the victims of this identity fraud as they are left to manage the estates of their deceased loved ones.”

For living relatives, any unpaid debts created with stolen IDs could usher in an unwelcome call from creditors. Debts run up in the deceased's name can be claimed against the estate, according to Time's Moneyland blog. Getting a record of when the fraud occurred -- along with proof of the date of death -- can be used to reject any financial claims.

Another way to keep tabs on a deceased person's finances is through their credit report. According to MSNBC, it's possible to get access to the report with a death certificate and proof of relationship.

Another preventative tactic to thwart identity theft of the deceased is to place a "deceased -- do not issue credit" flag on the credit file. According to Bankrate.com, the best way to do that is for the estate's executor to contact each of the three credit bureaus with a snail-mail letter with a copy of the death certificate and instructions to flag the file.

The study compared the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers on 100 million credit applications from January through March 2011 against data in the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. It found that 800,000 deceased Americans’ identities are intentionally used for identity theft while another 1.6 million Social Security numbers were fabricated by thieves and happened to belong to dead people.

It’s not the first time the Death Master File -- the official record of all Americans who have died -- has been part of costly identity mixups. The Social Security Administration mistakenly declared 14,000 people dead last year when they were still very much alive and kicking.

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