In cyberspace, even the dead can be victims. After you're gone, your digital life often continues, waiting to be exploited by unscrupulous spammers and causing distress for grieving loved ones.
In one recent case, a recently deceased man’s family members discovered they and all their friends and relatives were being spammed by someone who had stolen the departed's AOL account and address book. Other people have received "friend" recommendations on social-networking sites on behalf of dead spouses. [ 5 Simple Steps to Help Prevent Identity Theft ]
More important are the security and financial issues that are raised as more and more of our real lives end up online.
On the monetary side, a deceased person's website can be a valuable commodity, especially if the domain name is a desirable word, phrase or acronym. Even an established blog may have monetary value.
Whether to pass along such sites to relatives, keep them as online memorials or delete them upon death is a decision that should be made while the site owner is still alive.
There are also tricky emotional issues involved. For instance, should emails about a troubled relationship be passed along to the surviving spouse — or erased? And who decides?
"Families get upset when there's a blog or Facebook page and someone spams it," says Michael Aiello, founder of LifeEnsured, a New York startup aimed at helping people manage their online lives after death.
Even the issue of personal privacy was put into sharp relief in 2004 after a young Marine, Justin M. Ellsworth, was killed in Iraq. When his parents asked for access to his Yahoo email account, the company refused, citing privacy concerns. The family had to sue to eventually gain access.
You should consider whether you would want relatives to be able to read all your digital correspondence should you die, or whether you would prefer to have it all deleted. Company policies vary widely, and it can be difficult to have it all deleted without outside assistance.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of companies that offer just such services.
Entrustet, for example, will let you choose a digital guardian for your online life so that bank accounts and online email and social-networking accounts can either be passed on with minimal fuss — or placed in an "account incinerator."
The Madison, Wis., company can also conduct a digital search to locate remnants of digital lives, and will connect you to LegalZoom to create a will or help you find a lawyer to handle an estate.
San Francisco-based Legacy Locker provides a similar service, viewing itself as complementary to traditional estate planners, who usually handle property and account transfers.
DataInherit, located in Zurich, Switzerland, also offers a free service to securely store passwords and a few files, which will be passed on to your designated beneficiary upon your demise.
Traditionally, personal assets are handled by a will. If a will can't be located, professional estate planners, insurers and estate lawyers will work to find existing bank accounts, for example, then go through the legal work to have them transferred to the rightful heirs. (Be warned that such searches can entail a percentage-based fee.)
When it comes to online accounts, however, it can be trickier, as the Ellsworth case demonstrates.
Here's what you should consider taking care of online before you die:
E-mail: Web-based e-mail can be difficult for your heirs to access, and policies vary widely among major providers such as Google, Yahoo, Hotmail and AOL.
Social-networking sites: Many sites haven't addressed the digital afterlife issue yet. Others, such as Facebook, offer several options regarding a user page: leave it, delete it, or give it memorial status. Also to be considered: dating services like Match.com and eHarmony.
Blogs: Professional blogs can have value to others in the field and can be usefully archived. Personal ones may hold value to readers, so you may want to make arrangementsto keep your blog alive after death.
Websites: Domain names can be valuable. If you have a short address that was purchased several years ago, it may be worth tens of thousands of dollars now.
Online stores: Amazon keeps your downloaded movies and e-books stored online; consider which family members should have access to them after you are gone.
Online backup and storage: Services like Dropbox or Mozy can hold gigabytes of important documents, pictures and files.
Using a single service to store account names, locations and passwords can simplify matters, but you still have to decide how you would want each one handled (deleted or passed along).
Most of the services offer basic features, such as closing or transferring a finite number of accounts and files to a beneficiary.
LifeEnsured, for example, has a free version that will manage five online accounts. For $25 a year it will secure an unlimited number of accounts, from Facebook to Twitter, and provide 1 GB of secure storage for financial records, such as bank-account numbers and insurance policies.
One detail to remember after signing up with a service is that whenever you change your email or bank-account passwords, you'll have to update the after-death records as well. At LifeEnsured, you have to update each account’s entry manually, but the firm hopes to automate the process in the near future. [ How to Create and Remember Super-Secure Passwords ]
Of course, you still have to handle the most difficult decision on your own: selecting a trustworthy relative or friend to handle your personal cyber-effects. Consequently, many people decide to throw their online records onto a digital pyre.
According to Aiello, attitudes about privacy are split right down the middle among LifeEnsured users: "With e-mail, half want it all gone. The other half want their family to have access to it."