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Watch Out for Death-Related Scams

January 15, 2019

Research shows that vulnerability to a scam is highest in the three years after a major stress, such as a death in the family. After losing a loved one, survivors can be emotionally vulnerable in their grief. Sadly, scammers often use this susceptibility to prey on those who have recently experienced a loss. These heartless criminals use the obituary and other public information to steal someone’s identity, burglarize a home during the funeral, or pretend to be a creditor or long lost loved one.

Please be aware of these types of death-related scams and do what is necessary to protect yourself and your family:

Obituary Scams

Photo credit: Andriy Popov/123RF.com

When an obituary is printed in the newspaper or online, scammers can use the personal information to steal from the deceased and the surviving family members. Sometimes they note the time of the funeral and use the opportunity to rob the homes of those in attendance at the service or during calling hours. Other times, they use the personal information for identity theft. AARP reports that “Nearly 800,000 people a year are specifically targeted after death, because no one’s checking their credit reports. With details gleaned from an obit, crooks can often purchase or figure out the person’s Social Security number to fraudulently open credit card accounts, apply for loans or even file tax returns to collect refunds.”

Scammers also use the names published in obituaries to pretend to be long lost relatives of the deceased. In fact, the grandparent scam is a well-known deception. A grieving spouse or other survivor might receive a phone call from a scammer pretending to be a grandchild or other long lost relative. They will tell the mourner that they are in trouble, such as getting mugged or arrested, and they need money sent to them right away. Unfortunately, elderly people fall victim to this scam every year by wiring money or providing credit card information to scammers.

Scammers may pose as insurance agents or attorneys and claim that the deceased has a secret life insurance policy. The counterfeit agents claim that a final payment or fee is needed before benefits can be collected. A similar tactic is used by fraudulent bill collectors who claim that the deceased owes money or fake charities requesting a financial donation. Grieving spouses or relatives often have not had a chance to sort through their loved one’s financial affairs and agree to pay the money.

Protect yourself: Remember that the more personal facts you provide in an obituary, the more likely the information can be used in a scam to steal from the deceased and the survivors. When writing an obituary, give the name but not the birth date. Don’t include items such as middle name; mother’s maiden name or even names of grandchildren. Don’t include a home address and make sure a neighbor or someone is watching over the house during funeral services.

Also, notify important creditors and institutions about the death, such as the Social Security Administration, the IRS, banks, credit cards, mortgage companies and insurers. Close down social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter. Don’t make any payments over the phone – wait until the estate is settled and finances are sorted out before making any payments or donations.

Inheritance Scams

A scammer may contact a grieving relative or even just a random person out of the blue to say that the person has a large inheritance from a distant relative or wealthy patron and that the deceased left no other beneficiaries. According to Scamwatch, the scammer will sometimes say the person is legally entitled to claim the inheritance, or they might say that an unrelated wealthy person has died without a will, and that the victim of the scam can inherit their fortune through some legal trick because the person shares the same last name.

The scammer claims that the supposed inheritance is held up because of government regulations, taxes or bank restrictions in the country where the money is held, and that the person will need to pay money and/or provide personal details to claim it.

The scammer usually poses as a lawyer, banker or other foreign official, and they may use a written letter, phone call, text message, email or social networking message to contact their victims. Here is an example of a typical scam inheritance letter.

Protect yourself: Remember that scammers use personal information to play on your emotions and get what they want. Never send money; give credit card information; online account details; or copies of personal documents to anyone you don’t know or trust. If in doubt, seek the advice of a professional, such as a trusted lawyer, accountant or financial advisor. Do an internet search using details from the letter or email to identify known scams.

Secrets Scam

Cyber criminals scan the internet to find someone with a recent death in the family, especially an accidental or sudden death. These scammers then use the personal information to claim that the deceased left confidential information that must be kept secret from the rest of the family. They demand payment for DVD’s and important documents.

The KnowBe4 blog claims that “They insist on strict confidentiality and after a few emails it turns out they want $2,500 in exchange for 3 DVDs and other ‘very important documents’. “

Protect yourself: If you think it’s a scam, don’t respond. Never give a stranger money under threat of exposing secrets and contact authorities to report the attempted extortion. Avoid any arrangement with a stranger that asks for payment via money order, wire transfer, international funds transfer, pre-loaded card or electronic currency, like Bitcoin, as it is difficult to recover funds sent in these ways.

How to Report a Death-related Scam

If suspect you are the victim of a death-related scam, file a report with your local police department. You may also contact your state consumer protection office or contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC tries to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices, and they also provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid scams and fraud. You can also use the FTC’s Online Complaint Assistant to report various types of fraud, including counterfeit checks, lottery or sweepstakes scams, and more.

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