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How would you go about securing the online identity(ies) of someone as best you can after they've died, when they haven't put anything in place ahead of time for this event?

Assume we don't know how many identities or services they've used, but at the very least includes 3 email accounts with different providers, and at least one of facebook, twitter, myspace, youtube, etc., etc. There is physical access to one or two machines they've used frequently (mac, windows).

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Is there an estate? Is this for real, or just in theory? Are you sure that there are only three email accounts, and are you able to access them? What is both the outcome you seek, and potential threats you'd like to address? Do you have legal access to the systems? What form of proof of death do you have? –  blunders Jun 8 '11 at 1:08
    
estate: not sure what that means here, I'm not concerned about physical property (in this question); real/theory? yes, there is a real event but I tried to ask in a generalised fashion so the answers could be appropriate outside the particular which spawned it; email: unsure how many there may be; legal access: yes; proof: official death certificates. –  matt wilkie Jun 8 '11 at 16:17
    
desired outcome? ...that's a little hazy. At the very least protection from identity theft/assumption. I protect my online identity by using it, monitoring my email accounts, changing passwords etc. That option simply isn't available for the dead. I guess the question could be also be forumulated "how to identify (find) and freeze the online assets of someone who has died?" –  matt wilkie Jun 8 '11 at 16:22

3 Answers 3

Here's my off the top of my head common sense thoughts:

  • Assemble a list of accounts - email, social networking, bill paying, online shopping, etc.

    • Use the physical machines you have to do a search, check the history in any way you can, OS logs, browser history, bookmarks, correspondence in any email account you know about.
  • Contact the sites for any of these accounts to let the site know the person has passed away. It seems like it wouldn't hurt to get a letter written up by the estate's attorney, if there is one, so that there's some premise of legality.

    • Start with online stores
    • Where it's social media, it seems like it would be nice to close the account, where possible with a record of the person's death and possibly contact info for sending condolences or other information - it's possible that a person's friend network may know other accounts that should be closed. Also, letting contacts know that the person has died would help the contacts prevent any identity theft/spoofing attempts.

    • coordinate closure of any online accounts with laywers relating to the financial estate - there may be final bills that need paying. You may need to hand over accounts of this nature to the beneficiary or the estate's trustee.

    • Save the email addresses for last, as you may get incoming communication that needs a response. Also, it wouldn't surprise me to find out that you need the email account to close some of social network accounts.

  • Could also do a common sense search for the person's typical user names on Google to identify potential other places that the person is listed - which may or may not be connected to an account. The biggest trick would be to be able to determine which user is truly the deceased, since the possibility for name redundancy is high.

All that assumes just an average every day user. There may be other concerns depending upon the person's employment and/or family status. For example, if the person works in engineering, there may be company private material on the person's PCs and you may need to work with the company to make sure this information is managed appropriately. If the person is involved in any sort of court battles, do not pass go - do nothing and proceed directly to lawyer.

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A good high level overview, suitable for the generalness of the Q. Initially I was thinking of handling the email addresses first, or at least near the beginning. You're right though it's better to handle that later on, a last door to close on the way out. –  matt wilkie Jun 9 '11 at 22:20

(Glad to see others have posted answer, don't really have the time to give a detailed reply. Hope my questions where of some value.)

Here's a nice article covering major issues: Death and social media: what happens to your life online?

Main thing is your legal right to take actions on behalf of the deceased user's digital afterlife, and how delays in that might effect the outcome of your efforts. For example, if one of the reasons to access the accounts was to create a backup of the data and contacts, some email account service providers delete the data and/or account itself after a set amount of time. Another issue is as a result of this, someone might in fact acquire the email address after it expires to take over there identity; also unaware of any policies that allow usernames to be retired from reuse.

All and all, it's a very complex issue, but in the end, unlike to result in any threats. Main thing is the effect of having those accounts still online, and the impact seeing them might have on the ones they loved.

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thanks, especially for raising the potential issues of automatic deletion and re-release of the identity/email after a period of unuse. –  matt wilkie Jun 9 '11 at 22:17

The browser password cache may be helpful. Once you got access to the email accounts, you can try password resets.

If you don't have access to the saved passwords, that depends on the service and their policy. It usually involved paper work including snail mailing of faxing the certificate of death.

Here are some links to important services:

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