REGION – I’m sorry to hear about your recent death! Prepare to be scammed. About 250 years ago, Ben Franklin told us that only death and taxes were certainties. Excuse me Mr. Franklin, I have a third certainty – scams.
Scams that try to capitalize on the death of a person have been slowly growing in frequency, increasing dramatically during the pandemic. While a few of the fraud cases are related to funeral homes and services, these scams can be addressed by state and federal authorities. If you believe your family or friends have been victimized by a funeral service company or funeral director, here are some resources available to consumers: the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov), and the Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org, then enter complaint in search window). Every state regulates funerals and funeral service directors: New Hampshire – www.oplc.nh.gov/board-registration-funeral-directors-and-embalmers; Vermont – sos.vermont.gov/opr/complaints-conduct-discipline/. In addition, complaints can be filed with state attorneys general.
So much for complaints concerning funeral services. The other side to funeral service scams involves criminals. The process of scamming is fairly simple. As noted previously in this column, most of our personal information has already been exposed through data breaches and phishing expeditions. Add obituary notices to that data trove. By scanning these, the criminal can create a detailed profile of the recently deceased that includes family information, personal affiliations, pastimes, and preferences. With this information, the road to a variety of scams has been cleared. Based on research, here are the most common areas of fraud: (1) Identity theft – Most of us try to honor the death of a family member by submitting detailed obituaries for publication. The details noted can be sufficient to open new accounts or even claim refunds. Here are some protective steps: Don’t succumb to the desire to submit a detailed obituary by limiting personal information such as family names, birth date, or extensive details; provide notice, including a copy of the death certificate to the IRS, state motor vehicle department, major credit bureaus, credit card companies, and financial institutions. If you are contacted for any of this information, consider it as a scam. Financial institutions, government agencies, and credit bureaus will not request that you immediately provide personal information in contacts they originate. Verify contacts as legitimate before providing details; (2) Social media – Be cautious with information posted on social media. As with information provided in obituaries, too much personal information about the deceased can lead to different scams. Keep in mind that anything written on social media is available for anyone, anywhere to view. In the case of criminals, the information simply adds to what they already have and makes it easier for them to commit the crime. A protective step to consider is limiting social media content about the deceased. (3) Debt collection – Death actually makes fraudulent collection easier to commit since the deceased (or for that matter, their heirs) don’t check credit reports or account information. Frequently, criminals use the information they have obtained from obituaries and stolen data to claim that there are unpaid bills or sealed documents requiring a fee to release. Some protective steps: Don’t make payment by cash transfer (Zelle or Venmo) online or on the phone; ask the caller for detailed identity and contact information and research the legitimacy of the caller; before making any payment, seek legal advice; (4) Uncollected funds – Be Suspect of notices of eligibility to collect funds owed to the deceased (lottery winnings, insurance payments, refunds). As with debt collection scams, take appropriate steps, as noted above, to block scammers; (5) Clairvoyant scams – Watch out for con artists claiming to be in contact with decedents who reached out to him or her to make contact with the bereaved. This scam has a history of success collecting fees from those who were hit hard by the loss of a spouse or family member. Intervention can prevent further emotional loss.
Given the extent to which personal information is available, either from identity theft or newspaper and other media postings, take a few common sense steps to protect the legacy of the deceased and the well-being of the living.
Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. Questions or concerns? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.