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September 3, 2020 Beyond The Dash

Obituary Scams: Frauds That Prey on Grief

Don't get duped when a loved one passes away

Obituary Scams: Frauds That Prey on Grief
How can you protect yourself and your family from scammers who take advantage of the bereaved? (Shutterstock)

Grieving people are vulnerable in many ways. Stress, financial uncertainty and grief make the months following a loss very emotionally complex. One of the most confusing—but important—grief discoveries is when the grieving person begins to realize that life goes on without their loved one on earth. 

William Worden's Four Tasks of Mourning addresses this surreal state. The third task is "to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing." Part of this is forming new connections with others who fill the emotional void that is left in the aftermath of the death. Strengthening old relationships and forming new ones is a healthy way to handle bereavement. However, this willingness to connect with others opens vulnerable mourners to frauds looking for the opportunity to profit. 

Bereavement scams 

Bereavement scams are not new. Though the idea of taking advantage of a grieving person's emotional state is reprehensible to most, these types of abuses have always existed. It's difficult to spot a bereavement scam, because there are endless creative ways to defraud those who have lost a loved one.

The following bereavement scams are the most common:

  • Probate fraud

Probate fraud usually begins before the death has occurred. This kind of scam is usually carried out by those who are known to the deceased person, rather than by strangers. Those who are terminally ill or elderly fall victim to this type of scam. 

After nurturing the dying person's emotional or physical dependence, the scammer convinces them to make changes to their will, sign over property, or put them in charge of executor duties. This scam is marked by sudden changes of beneficiaries and last-minute will changes.

Unfortunately, this type of scam is difficult to undo if the will was made legally. Even if changes were made through coercion or threats, true beneficiaries will most likely have to contest the will in court following the death. 

How to avoid: Loved ones should take care of their ailing friends or loved ones. Offer the dying or elderly person emotional support and company. Let them know about potential probate scams, and to watch for new friends, caregivers or acquaintances who may be looking to defraud them. 

  • Defrauding beneficiaries

Probate scams can also victimize the beneficiaries. In these scams, fraudsters contact the beneficiaries listed in the deceased person's obituary notice. They may pretend to have known the deceased, or they may simply try to strike up a relationship with the beneficiary in order to manipulate them and profit. 

How to avoid: If you are a recent beneficiary of a loved one's estate, be wary of strangers or those claiming to have known your loved one—particularly those who approach you on the internet. Like winning the lottery, coming into a significant inheritance can bring opportunists out of the woodwork.

  • Obituary scams

Unfortunately, scammers find a hotbed of useful information right in the obituaries section of the local newspaper. Names, maiden names, dates of birth, beneficiaries and addresses are often readily available in the form of a life story. 

There are many cases of burglars targeting the homes of grieving families during the funeral service. Knowing that those listed in the obituary will be at the memorial service during the time stated in the death notice, criminals will pay a visit to the family home when they know no one will be home. 

There have also been cases of people using the obituaries section to find deals on vehicles and equipment. Usually targeting widows and orphans, these opportunists will show up at the family home pretending they are there to buy a vehicle or other piece of equipment. The children or widow will be confused, stating no vehicle was listed for sale. But if the deceased did leave behind unused vehicles, the family might be willing to sell on the spot. Knowing this, the scammer takes advantage of the vulnerable family to get a good deal. Though this isn't necessarily illegal, it is a manipulative scheme that mourners should be aware of. 

How to avoid: Don't list the address of the family home in the obituary notice, and beware of strangers who turn up to buy items that weren't listed for sale. 

If this happens and you do wish to sell, check the Kelley Blue Book value of vehicles or other equipment to ensure that the pricing is aligned with the value. You can also compare the value of items with their selling prices on sites like Craigslist to determine a fair price. 

  • Spiritual manipulation

One very sinister method of defrauding mourners is by manipulating their spiritual beliefs. People who claim to be spiritual advisers, psychics, pastors or healers often seek out desperate grieving people to scam them out of their money. This is a clever way to defraud vulnerable people. Not only is the grieving person more susceptible to a master manipulator when they are bereaved, but they are also more likely to have recently inherited money. 

These frauds often claim they are able to communicate with the dead—or even bring the dead back to life. While meeting with a psychic can be a harmless way to gain clarity for some, these types of scammers make a regular income by drawing out the spiritual process, siphoning away hundreds of thousands of dollars from their victims over several years. They nurture emotional dependence, and provide lonely, isolated people with someone to talk to—but it doesn't come cheap. 

How to avoid: Don't seek out spiritual advice from people you don't know. Rely on a grief counselor, or religious leader known to your family prior to the loss, rather than seeking the advice of psychics or snake oil salesmen. 

  • Long lost relatives

The grandparent scam is a well-known hoax that has been around for years. An elderly person will receive a phone call from a scammer pretending to be a long lost relative, usually a grandchild. They will state that they are in trouble and they need money sent to them as soon as possible. Unfortunately, kind-hearted elderly people fall victim to this scam each year, wiring away money that they are unlikely to ever see again. 

How to avoid: There are many scams like this out there. Educate your elderly family members of this scam. Make sure they know the dangers of wiring or transferring money to other countries. Protect yourself and your family by educating vulnerable relatives about the most common stories that scammers will concoct in order to steal money. 

If you've received an inheritance and are suddenly hearing about a long lost relative who wants to reconnect with distant family: be very cautious. It may be an obituary scam.

Protect yourself and your family

At a time when your grief is the deepest, it's unfortunate that you also need to be watching out for those looking to profit. However, scammers have always targeted those who are vulnerable. Knowing the signs of a scam and educating your family on them is a good way to protect against obituary-related scams. 

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