Identity thieves have long targeted a wide variety of potential victims – men, women, senior citizens, even children and babies. Now, a growing segment of identity theft involves deceased Americans. Each year, criminals steal the identities of 2.5 million deceased Americans. Using the information of people who are no longer with us, criminals have been able to get cell phones, jobs, credit cards and even loans to buy just about anything – including homes! In some cases, thieves even brazenly file tax returns, collecting more than $5 billion in fraudulent refunds each year.  Here are the common ways they’re getting their hands on private information – and what you can do to prevent it:

Limit the amount of information placed in obituaries. One of the most popular sources of reading material for criminals is the newspaper. With a name and a birth date, a crook can find an address and Social Security number fairly easily. That’s all that’s needed in most cases to open a credit account.

Notify financial institutions and credit-reporting agencies. Obtain at least 12 copies of the official death certificate and notify all banks, credit card and insurance companies, and other financial institutions with whom the deceased had accounts. Also contact the three major credit-reporting agencies in writing to place a “deceased” alert on the individual’s credit report.

Contact the Social Security Administration. Immediately notify the Social Security Administration of the individual’s death. To report a death to the Social Security Administration, call 1-800-772-1213.