Death in the digital age: What to do to protect the deceased from identity theft

Death in the digital age: What to do to protect the deceased from identity theft

 According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, 73% of online adults use social media. But what do you do when a family member or friend on these sites passes away?
According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, 73% of online adults use social media. But what do you do when a family member or friend on these sites passes away?
Julie Myhre, Editor

The UpTake: According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, 73 percent of online adults use social media. When a family member or friend who used social media passes away, how do you protect identities and life from identity theft?

In this Digital Age, more and more people are connecting on social media. As of May 2013, 72 percent of online adults use social networking sites, according toPew Internet and American Life Project. The unfortunate aspect of so many people using social media is that when one of our friends or family members dies, we are forced to not only deal with their identity — in terms of their personal information — but also with their digital identity.

Family members and friends question if they should take down the loved one’s social media or leave it as a memorial for people to leave comments and reflect. Technically there is no right decision to make in this difficult situation, yet family members and friends need to consider that if they leave the profile online, then they might be putting their loved one’s identity at risk. This is mostly because of constantly changing privacy rules for all of the major social media websites.

If the family members or friends do decide to delete the digital identity of their loved one, then here are some tips on how to request the removal of the deceased’s account.

Facebook:This social network’s policy is to memorialize the account of a deceased person, however it understands that some people want to delete the deceased person’s account. To memorialize an account, simply contact Facebook, provide proof of death and request for the account to be memorialized. To delete an account on Facebook, you’ll need to fill out thisonline formas well as provide proof that you’re related to the deceased. Facebook considers appropriate proof to be a death certificate, the deceased person’s birth certificate or proof of authority.

Twitter:Unlike Facebook, Twitter’s policy is to deactivate the account of the deceased. In order to complete this you’ll need to mail Twitter a packet of information, including the username of the deceased user’s Twitter account, a copy of the deceased user’s death certificate and a copy of your government-issued ID.

On top of the copies of the official documents, Twitter also requires you to mail or fax the company a signed statement that includes your first and last name, your email address, your contact information, your relationship to the deceased person, written request to deactivate the account and a description of the details that show the account belongs to the deceased — if the account has a different name than the death certificate. You can also include a link to the online obituary, however adding this is not required. Once you’ve collected all of the information, mail or fax it to:

Twitter, Inc.
c/o: Trust & Safety
1355 Market St., Suite 900
San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax : 1-415-865-5405

After you’ve mailed or faxed all of the required documentation, a representative of Twitter will contact you to complete the deactivation process.

Instagram:This social networking website requires you to send an email to with the details of the person’s account. A representative from the company will then email you back and include the steps and documentation that you need to remove the account.

LinkedIn:Similar to Facebook, LinkedIn prefers to have you fill out anonline form, which asks for information such as the deceased member’s name, deceased member’s email address, the name of the company they recently worked for, your relationship to the deceased person and a link to the deceased person’s email address. Once you complete the form, a LinkedIn representative should contact you.

Pinterest:This site requires you to fill out anonline contact formand explain that you’d like to deactivate the page of a deceased person. In the “body” of the contact form, you should include a link to the deceased person’s Pinterest page or their Pinterest username. It’s also important to note that once you’re contacted by a Pinterest representative, you’ll need to provide some sort of supporting documentation, such as an obituary or copy of the death certificate.

Tumblr:Similar to Instagram, Tumblr requires you to send an email to requesting to remove the account of the deceased person. Be sure to include a link to the deceased person’s Tumblr or their Tumblr username. You’ll then work with a Tumblr representative to prove the person is deceased — with appropriate documentation — and complete the process of removing the account.

Since all of these companies haveprivacy policiesthat forbid them from giving out the account information — such as username and password — it’s best if you, as a living person, write down the usernames and passwords for your social media accounts and keep them in a safe place. This way, your family and friends won’t have to go through the stress of contacting each of the social networking websites to have your account removed because they’ll instead be able to go into the account and deactivate or remove it themselves.

Digital assets should be included in wills

Digital assets should be included in wills

Consumers must beware potential ownership issues following death or loss of capacity

Clients should not overlook digital assets as part of their estate planning, the Law Society has recommended.

Gary , partner at Joseph A Jones Solicitors, said: “When you’re taking will instructions, if you’re using the Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme protocol, there’s a personal asset log there that clients can write down all of their assets, including their digital assets.”

Digital assets are defined as any asset accessed or held online, so an assets log will help family or professional advisers locate them.

“We are leading a digital life,” said , “and that needs to be taken into account when making wills.”

The advice says that having a list of all online accounts, such as email, banking, investments and social networking sites, will make it easier for family members to piece together a digital legacy, adhere to an individual’s wishes and could save both time and money.

“If you have a Twitter account, your family may want it deactivated and – if you have left clear instructions – it will be easier for your executors to have it closed,” he added.

Half the problem of not being able to close social media accounts after a client dies is that a will was never been made in the first place.

“If you have an up-to-date valid will with appointed executors, you’re halfway there to getting these things sorted out as it’s the solicitor who has the golden ticket to unlocking the assets,” said.

However, personal assets log should not list passwords or PINs as an executor accessing the account with these details could be committing a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

Leaving a list of online accounts and ensuring it is kept current is enough.

, who contributed to the recommendations, said solicitors shouldn’t be penalised if they do not make clients keep a log of digital assets.

The society said a practice note on the matter is on the agenda.

Promising start but more needs doing, says James Ward

“The recent recommendations from the Law Society in relation to this problematic area of law should be seen as a promising start but much still needs to be done.

“There are multiple problems currently facing private client solicitors within this remit, and they won’t be solved any time soon. The location of digital assets for starters may lead to multi-jurisdictional legal issues in getting access to the asset.

“There is currently no joined-up international law on the subject. Questions could also be raised over the actual ownership of the assets, such as music which is often held by the individual on a licence that cannot be transferred.

“As well, there are legal, practical and security difficulties with using someone else’s password, and there are valuation issues of assets for fiduciaries when dealing with taxes such as inheritance tax.

“Another issue is the delay in getting access to the assets. For instance, key information, held online, used in the running of a small company could be inaccessible for a lengthy causing significant difficulty to that company.

“Currently, the Uniform Law Commission in the US is drafting suggested legislation.

“However, until that is done and then adopted worldwide, it is essential to make your clients aware of the issues, keep accurate records, be aware of end-user agreements and sometimes taking the old-fashioned approach and occasionally press print.”

Don't Let Your Digital Assets Die With You

Growing importance of the digital legacy

Testators are increasingly being advised to leave clear instructions about their ‘digital legacies’ after their death.

The latest organisation to stress the importance of online assets is the Law Society. It recommends that people should, at the very least, keep an up-to-date list of all their online accounts, such as email, banking, investments and social networking sites, to make it easier for family members to recover or close them.

However, the society considers that the list should stop short of recording passwords or PINs. ‘An executor accessing [the deceased’s] account with these details could be committing a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990‘, said Gary Rycroft, a member of its wills and equity committee. Passwords should certainly not be listed in a will which will ultimately have to be published.

The term ‘digital legacy’ also encompasses computer game characters in online games like World of Warcraft; music and films; internet domains registered to the deceased; YouTube videos; and Bitcoins, all of which can represent valuable assets.

‘An experienced and wealthy game character takes time to create, and it appears it may be possible to sell such characters online,’ says Patricia Milner of Withers. ‘What such an asset would be worth for inheritance tax purposes on death is unclear as the market in this kind of asset is very new.’

Similarly, says Withers, YouTube videos can attract payments from advertisers if the video gets a large number of viewings.

Without proper records much of this can be lost on the owner’s death. According to Oliver Embley of Wedlake Bell, the best solution is for the testator to leave a letter of wishes giving executors access to online accounts and stating which accounts should be deleted after death.

However, executors are at the mercy of service providers and problems may be encountered if service providers do not recognise the consents given in a Letter of Wishes. Even where records exist, the licensing arrangements attached to some assets – such as Apple’s iTunes – specify that the assets die with the original owner.

There may also be jurisdictional issues, says Embley. ‘However, for the present, setting out express instructions in a letter of wishes gives the user the best chance of enabling his loved ones to inherit his personal digital effects.’