Obituary Scams Target Vulnerable Family Members
Losing a loved one is difficult. Emotions are raw and critical thinking is on the backburner. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous criminals who know exactly how to take advantage of people in this vulnerable state with what are known as obituary scams. They troll the obituaries in local newspapers and look for personal information they can use to steal identities or money.
Here are several of the most common types of obituary scams along with what you can do to help protect yourself from them.
Identity theft from obituaries is more common than you might think. A deceased person cannot monitor their credit rating, and by the time their loved ones catch on, criminals can run up substantial bills in the deceased's name in the form of new loans and credit cards or new cell phone accounts.
It's important to keep certain personal details to a minimum in an obituary. (See the sidebar for specific recommendations.) As an extra precaution, you should notify Equifax, Trans Union, and Experian of your loved one's passing.
A common trick is to convince a surviving spouse or family member that they owe money on the deceased's behalf. The criminal contacts the target, posing as the representative of a debt collection service, and informs them that they are responsible for the deceased's outstanding debts. Some even go so far as to threaten legal action in an attempt to intimidate their victim into compliance. This often occurs soon after the death, when no one has had a chance yet to sort through the deceased's financial affairs.
You should never agree to make any payment or give any personal information to someone over the phone or via email. Insist on getting their name, the company they represent, and a phone number so you can call them back. More often than not, the criminal will quickly find a reason to get off the phone or simply hang up.
A promise of free money is enticing to anyone. In this type of obituary scam, the criminal contacts a family member of the deceased with news of a "windfall" from the deceased's estate such as an inheritance or a payout from a "secret" life insurance policy. However, the victim must pay a processing fee or make one last premium payment before they can access the money.
You should never agree to hand over any money in order to access a promised sum. Take down the details of whoever is making the claim so that you can verify it independently. If the offer is legitimate, it will be easy to verify.
Some criminals stoop even lower. They use the information in obituaries to find out when a funeral is planned, and then burglarize the homes of family members and friends while they're away at the service. They may even break into the home of the deceased and take anything of value they can get their hands on.
To protect yourself, do not include any home address information in the obituary that might help a criminal identify where you or your loved ones live. This doesn't just protect you, but also any neighbors who might be likely to attend the funeral service and leave their homes unattended. You may also want to hire a house sitter to keep an eye on your home while you're away.
Err on the Side of Caution
In the wake of a personal loss, falling victim to unscrupulous thieves adds insult to injury. By staying alert to any unusual contact or activity in the wake of your loved one's passing, you can help protect yourself from becoming a victim and focus instead on the grieving process.
FAST FACT: Scammers steal the identities of 2,200 deceased Americans every day.
Make the Obituary Personal, but Not Too Personal
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the U.S. Every minute, 19 people become new victims.1 Unfortunately, obituaries are a prime source of information for scammers who are on the lookout to steal whatever they can — even your loved one's identity.
While it's important to honor your loved one with a personalized and meaningful obituary, there is some information that you should leave out to protect yourself and other family members. For example, you can list the deceased person's age, but do not include details like the following:
- Date of birth
- Place of birth
- Middle name
- Home address
- Maiden name
The reason for not listing a mother's maiden name is that it can put her adult children at risk, since it's often a security question for online accounts. Thieves can use this information and combine it with publicly available data to quickly steal the identity of the deceased. This can lead to taking out loans or making purchases in their name, long before financial institutions can catch up.