5 Steps to Help Protect Your Credit as a Widow

5 Steps to Help Protect Your Credit as a Widow
Elliott Appel, CFP®, CLU®, RLP®

Elliott Appel, CFP®, CLU®, RLP®

Welcome! I'm Elliott, the founder of Kindness Financial Planning, LLC, a fee-only, fiduciary advisor located in Madison, WI working virtually with widows and caregivers across the United States. When I'm not helping people live their ideal life, I'm often cooking for my wife, playing tennis, or hiking.

Last Updated on February 28, 2022

There were 1,387,615 identity theft cases in 2020

There were 2.18 million reports of fraud. 

It’s very important to protect your credit as a widow. Identity theft is not an easy road to recover from. 

At a time when bills need to be paid, funeral arrangements need to be organized, and it’s tough to feel 100% mentally alert, scammers are often searching obituaries to take advantage of the situation. 

Unfortunately, the death of a spouse is a tough time with many financial accounts in flux, making it an ideal time for scammers to strike. 

Although nothing is foolproof, there are a few key steps you can take as a widow to help protect your credit. 

1. Freeze Your Credit and Review Credit Reports Regularly

Whether you are a widow or not, freezing your credit is a critical step to protect your credit. I recommend it to nearly everybody I know because it’s a good barrier to help prevent people from applying for credit in your name.

Plus, it doesn’t take very much time, and it’s free. 

There are three credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. If you don’t run into any issues doing it online, the process might take about 15 minutes for each credit bureau. In total, it takes about 45 minutes to freeze your credit at the three credit bureaus. 

What is a credit freeze? 

A credit freeze helps protect you from identity theft by restricting access to your credit report. What this means in practice is that if someone tried to apply for credit in your name, the creditor would not be able to access your file and would likely not allow someone to open a new credit account. 

While the freeze is in place, you’ll still be able to apply for credit, but you’ll need to temporarily unfreeze it each time. For example, if you are shopping for a mortgage, applying for a credit card, or buying insurance, you may need to ask which credit bureau they use to run your credit report and unfreeze your credit at that credit bureau.

It’s an easy process, and you can tell the credit bureau you only want to lift it for a certain period of time. 

Equifax had a huge data breach that exposed the personal information of 147 million people in 2017, which is why I recommend nearly everybody freeze their credit. As time goes on, more and more companies are reporting data breaches exposing personal information. This makes it more likely your information is out there somewhere. 

You want to take steps to protect your credit. A credit freeze is a simple and free way to help protect your credit without causing many headaches. 

Another way to help protect your credit is to request your credit reports occasionally. 

You can request a free credit report annually at www.annualcreditreport.com from each of the three major credit bureaus. 

One tactic is to spread out those requests throughout the year. For example, you could request a credit report from Experian in January, Equifax in May, and TransUnion in September. Each credit bureau might report slightly different information, but it can be helpful to get a snapshot multiple times a year rather than once a year. 

Your credit report will show open credit, credit inquiries, late payments, and more. If someone had opened credit in your name, it should show on your credit report, potentially allowing you to fix it sooner than if you had not looked. 

A credit freeze and looking at your credit report regularly are two good steps to help protect your credit as a widow. 

2. File Taxes Early and Apply for an IP PIN

There are people who file fraudulent returns with the IRS to claim someone’s tax refund. This can be a problem if you are trying to protect your credit as a widow.

For example, if you expected to get a $5,000 refund, someone might fraudulently file your tax return in order to claim the $5,000 refund. 

A good way to minimize the likelihood of it happening is to file your taxes early. Although that is not always possible because of K-1 tax documents that are released later in the year, if you can file early, you should consider it. 

Most tax documents come out by mid-February and many 1099 documents are corrected by early March, making that the earliest some may want to file. 

Another strategy is to get an Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN)

An IP PIN is a six-digit number you use to file your tax return with the IRS. It helps the IRS verify your identity if you file electronically or via paper. 

Please be aware that an IP PIN is valid for one calendar year. You’ll receive a new IP PIN each year, which means it’s not a “set it and forget it” situation. There is extra effort each year to make sure you receive it, and if you lose it or don’t receive the CP01A notice with the new IP PIN, you can try the online tool to recover it.

If the online tool doesn’t work, you’ll need to call them and it may take 21 days for your IP PIN to be mailed. You can also paper file your return, but that’s not as fast or easy as online. 

While an IP PIN is a helpful tool to decrease the likelihood of a fraudulent tax return being filed, it comes with a few downsides if you lose the IP PIN and can’t use their online tool. 

You’ll need to weigh whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for you. 

3. Notify IRS and Credit Bureaus of Your Spouse’s Death

Although this one doesn’t directly help protect your credit, it can help prevent an administrative nightmare and potentially help protect your credit as a widow. 

You’ll want to send the IRS and credit bureaus a copy of your spouse’s death certificate

This helps the IRS know the account should be flagged as deceased and the credit bureau to put a “deceased alert” on the deceased’s credit report. 

Also, if you are creating an obituary, try to reduce the amount of personal information you share that identity thieves could use. For example, birth date, address, mother’s maiden name, and other common information used to open or access accounts should not be used in the obituary. 

Similar to obtaining your own credit report, you can also request your spouse’s credit report to identify any suspicious activity. 

Lastly, if most of the credit was in your spouse’s name, you may want to obtain credit in your own name as soon as possible. You’ll never know when you need to use it, and the length of time credit is open is an important factor in determining your credit score. 

4. Scrutinize the Bills

There are many bills when someone passes away. 

There are the normal bills, but there also the one-time bills that are hard to track.

There might be bills that your spouse signed up for that you didn’t pay or track closely. You may not recognize them. It’s normal. 

It’s even harder because our brains don’t function as well during stress and grief. 

But, it’s a particularly important time to scrutinize the bills more closely. 

It’s important to scrutinize the bills because scammers may watch obituaries closely and use the grieving time as an opportunity to send a fake bill. What someone might catch during normal times they may fail to recognize as a scam during times of loss. 

A grieving person might write a check, go to a fake website, or input credit card information without a second thought. I know when I’ve had less sleep and am stressed, I am less likely to notice red flags. And, unfortunately, scammers are very good at making fake bills seem real. 

You don’t have to go it alone. You can enlist the help of a friend or family member to go through them with you. They may have a more rested set of eyes and be wondering how they can help

Before paying any one-off bills or anything not on autopay already, put it in a pile and go through it by yourself or with a friend. 

Do you recognize it? Is it something your spouse would have bought? Do you recognize it on any other bank statements or credit card bills?

Old bank statements and credit card bills can be a great resource to reference. 

Also, if someone calls, it’s okay to say you’ll call back at a publicly listed number from their main website. It’s not uncommon for people to find publicly available information, call, and claim an invoice is due for a medical or credit card bill. Sometimes, it’s best to call back at a number you find on their website. This may help prevent you from becoming a victim of someone masking their phone number to show up as a different number.

If someone pressures you to pay immediately through a wire, gift cards, or any other immediate form of payment, that is a red flag. 

Take your time and scrutinize bills after your spouse passes away. It’s an especially vulnerable time. 

5. Use Strong Passwords and Two-Factor Authentication When Possible

Although everyone should use strong passwords and two-factor authentication when possible, it’s a particularly important time to use them, as you may need to create new accounts or new logins. 

It’s better to set up a strong system when you need to create new logins than to try to find the time to go back and fix the system. 

Do you use a simple password that includes personal information, such as date of birth, favorite pet, etc.?

Do you use the same password for more than one website? 

Do you not include any numbers, characters, or longer passwords? 

Now is the time to fix it!

I’m a big fan of password managers, such as Dashlane, LastPass, 1 Password, etc. 

A password manager stores your online credentials and helps you login automatically. You remember one complex password that allows access to all your other passwords. 

I like this method because who can remember passwords to 20+ websites? I know I can’t. 

With a password manager, you can create 15+ character passwords with uppercase letters, lowercase letters, symbols, and numbers for each website. Each website has its own unique password that would be incredibly difficult to guess or crack. 

No more writing down passwords on a piece of paper and keeping it near your computer. With that method, you are one burglary away from potentially having your online identity stolen. 

Using a password manager, you can create a unique password for each website. Since each website has a unique password, if that website is hacked and the password revealed, your other information is not in jeopardy as it would be if you were using the same or similar password across multiple websites. 

I know many people like to use common passwords that are easy to remember, but your passwords are the safe around your bank accounts, email, and everything else that touches your life. 

If your email is hacked, that is a way for hackers to gain access to accounts through a password reset. If your commonly used password is hacked on a website that you don’t care about, hackers may use it to gain access to an important website you do care about. The online world is very connected, which is why it is important to use strong, unique passwords. 

Using a strong, unique password is a great start, but you should also consider using two-factor authentication when possible. 

Two-factor or two-step authentication requires a password and a second layer of sign-in security. For example, you might put in your password and then a string of digits texted to your phone. Or, it might be a password and a security app with a string of digits that changes every 30 seconds. 

Although a text message is one form of two-factor authentication, my understanding is that text messages are not the most secure because they can be intercepted. 

Many security experts prefer an authentication app, such as Google Authenticator or Duo Mobile. If you have the option of SMS text message or an authentication app, I would choose the authentication app.

Having strong passwords and using two-factor authentication when available are helpful strategies to help protect your credit as a widow. The more secure your online information is, the less likely it is for a scammer to access your information and fraudulently use it. 

Final Thoughts – My Question for You

Your credit is an important part of your financial life. It’s critical to take the necessary steps to protect it. 

Thankfully, most steps are not a big time commitment. Most can be done in 15-30 minute blocks of time. 

Although nothing is foolproof in protecting your credit, these steps can help: 

  1. Freeze your credit and review credit reports regularly
  2. File taxes early and apply for an IP PIN
  3. Notify IRS and Credit Bureaus of Your Spouse’s Death
  4. Scrutinize the bills
  5. Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication when possible

The death of your spouse is a particularly vulnerable time when scammers are on high alert and mental acuity is usually lower. 

Consider asking a friend, family member, or financial planner to help you scrutinize your bills and help you take preventative steps to help protect your credit. 

I’ll leave you with one question to act on. 

What one step are you going to take to help protect your credit? 

Disclaimer: This article is for general information and educational purposes only and should not be considered investment, financial, legal, or tax advice. It is not a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security or investment advisory services. Please consult your own legal, financial, and other professionals to determine what may be appropriate for you. Opinions expressed are as of the date of publication, and such opinions are subject to change. Click for full disclaimer.

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