When Anita Crook's father died a few months ago, she tried calling the credit bureaus about flagging his credit reports as "deceased" to prevent identity fraud in his name. After repeated attempts, she gave up trying to get around automated phone systems that didn't address her problem.
According to the credit bureaus, the Atlanta woman is correct: Marking a family member's file "deceased" simply cannot be done over the telephone.
"They would need to write to Experian with this request and mail a copy of the deceased person's death certificate," says Experian spokeswoman Heather Greer. "This ensures that Experian has the proper documentation for its files."
With proof of death, she says, Experian "updates the credit file to show that the consumer is deceased . . . and makes the file inactive so that it doesn't display to potential creditors."
Chris Jarrard, Equifax's vice president of consumer services, recommends that the consumer also include copies of power-of-attorney or executor paperwork when mailing in the death certificate.
But notifying the credit bureaus of a relative's death is not standard procedure, says TransUnion spokeswoman Colleen Martin. "Most people don't do it," she says, explaining that the bureaus typically learn of someone's death and note it on his file from the Social Security Administration's official death registry. "But I commend her for being proactive and keeping an eye on it."
Linda Foley, executive director of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, says that whether standard or not, it's a good idea to notify the Social Security Administration and each of the credit bureaus of a family member's death -- in writing with copies of the death certificate because they can't just take your word for it.
"We have had more than our fair share of phone calls saying 'Someone has reported me as deceased!' It screws up your credit report," she says.
Besides, the credit bureaus can't verify all the information they receive from creditors or consumers, she adds. "They really are trying to sort through what is truth and what is fiction, so providing a death certificate makes sense."
Crook also complained that reaching a "live" representative at the major credit reporting bureaus is next to impossible, no matter what your problem is. "I am very frustrated that the credit bureaus don't take consumer calls," she e-mailed.
The credit bureaus require you to have a recent credit report in hand before you can get access to a live representative.
"We understand it's hard to get a live person," says TransUnion's Martin, "but we don't want to talk to anybody about a fraud report or credit report until we have authenticated they are the person they say they are," as required by law.
Experian's Greer says opening the phone lines to any caller wouldn't be efficient. Reserving live assistance for only consumers who can key in a recent credit report code via the automated phone or online service guarantees everybody will be looking at the same page when discussing it.
"Simple processes like ordering a report are automated so that we use our skilled customer representatives to provide fast and efficient assistance for consumers who need a higher level of help," she says. "With automated systems available 24/7, we are able to assist the greatest number of consumers."
Greer's advice for anyone who believes he is a victim of identity theft is to go to Experian's Web site and click on the "fraud" link. This page explains the entire process, gives tips on dealing with fraud, adds an immediate fraud alert to the victim's file and allows the victim to view his report. The other credit bureaus are also notified automatically.
That's when the consumer gets a credit bureau phone number to call and discuss the fraud. "The urgent part is adding the alert to let other creditors know that [the consumer] has reported fraud," says Greer. "The consumer can do that with one phone call or by adding the alert on our Web site."
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.