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Startup offers a post-mortem purge of social media

MINNEAPOLIS -- Scott Weinberg of Minneapolis was out bicycling about three years ago when he had troubling thoughts: What if he got hit by a car? If so, what would happen to all of his social media accounts?

The accounts “would be flapping out there in the breeze” after he had died, he realized. Under such circumstances, he would prefer that the accounts be promptly shut down.

So Weinberg saw a business opportunity. His online service, Protect Their Memories, is designed to help families in precisely that situation. When someone dies, the service helps survivors promptly wipe the deceased person’s accounts on Facebook, Twitter and six other top social networks.

The survivors could do this on their own, and the social networks typically outline the steps -- but it can be a complex, time-consuming process, Weinberg said.

For $300 per deceased person, Weinberg takes care of it. This flat fee covers all of that person’s social accounts, which can include personas on Google, Tumblr, Foursquare, Reddit, Pinterest and LinkedIn.

This is typically a weeks-long process but that varies depending on the service’s level of difficulty. Reddit is the easiest, Weinberg said, and Google is the hardest -- he said it has unusually stringent requirements, such as proof of death delivered by postal mail; no online submissions allowed.

Protect Their Memories doesn’t need to access accounts to do its work, and it never asks for account passwords.

The service exists partly, according to its site, because “dormant social media accounts are sought by internet ‘trolls’ for identity theft purposes.”

Protect Their Memories may be the only service of its kind on the planet, and almost certainly so in the United States, said Weinberg, who has searched but claims he has yet to find anything comparable.

It also is a bit of an experiment, he added. He doesn’t know if he has the makings of a prosperous business or even a marginally viable one, but he aims to find out while holding on to his day job in software sales.

He wrestled a bit with whether the service is overly morbid, but realized funeral homes, casket makers, cemeteries and other businesses perform valuable services for grieving families.

He has yet to do aggressive marketing, but has contacted estate planning attorneys to spread the word and fine-tune his business model. Protect Their Memories has a narrow niche, and not every family with a just-deceased member is a good fit.

Some families might want accounts kept active permanently for sentimental reasons, perhaps as memorials to the deceased, or at least temporarily to scour them for family pictures, important documents or financial assets, such as Bitcoin currency or PayPal balances.

In some cases, families of the deceased may not even know what social networks and other online services the dearly departed had used, and require someone to help them track down such information. Protect Their Memories isn’t the correct kind of service for that, but another service called Webcease claims to handle such matters.

Webcease said it “ identifies active online accounts for the deceased and instructs on the different options for retrieval, closure or memorialization in accordance with the policies of each site.”

Services of this kind have useful roles, though they “are a little ahead of their time,” said Jim Lamm, a Minneapolis estate planning attorney who owns the Digital Passing blog.

In certain cases, social media accounts are deleted automatically after predetermined periods of inactivity, Lamm noted. He isn’t sure whether identity theft related to such dormant accounts is a big problem, either.

Lamm said he and his wife do fit the Protect Their Memories profile perfectly, though.

“My wife wouldn’t care at all about my online accounts” if he passed on, he said, “and would take one shot with this service to shut them all down.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.