FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER
When a spouse, parent, sibling or close friend dies, it’s natural to want to tell that individual’s story — to share in obituaries what made the cherished person special and to swap memories on social media. But as you celebrate a loved one’s life and mourn his or her death, take care with what you share, because scammers are paying attention, too.
Obituary swindles, also known as bereavement scams, typically start with information gleaned from death notices in newspapers or posted online. Fraudsters harvest facts commonly included in obits — such as the deceased’s birth date, where the person lived and worked, and family members’ names — to start building a profile for identity theft.
With just a few key details, cybercrooks can locate and purchase a dead person’s home address, Social Security number and other personal data on the dark web. They use that information to access or create financial accounts, take out loans, obtain health care or file phony tax returns (and claim bogus refunds) under the deceased’s name — a form of ID theft dubbed ghosting.
Or they’ll weave what they’ve learned about a recent death into impostor scams targeting a surviving spouse or other family member. Con artists posing as government officials, debt collectors or insurance agents try to pry loose more personal data about the deceased, or solicit payment for a supposedly unpaid bill, unclaimed benefit or lapsed policy. As obituaries often list numerous members of the deceased’s family, they also provide fodder for grandparent scams.
Some bereavement cons are more involved, and they can get personal. Obit-scouring swindlers pretend to be long-lost friends or relatives of the deceased, contacting surviving spouses out of the blue to commiserate and reminiscence. These shows of simulated compassion can evolve into romance scams or attempts to defraud beneficiaries out of inheritance money.
Fraudsters are fond of obituary scams because the victims are either dead, so they’re unable to monitor financial accounts and credit reports for unusual activity, or emotionally vulnerable and potentially more prone to manipulation. Some scammers even pose as psychics or spiritual advisers, draining money from grieving people by promising to use supernatural means to ease their loss.
- You get a call from an alleged government official, debt collector or insurance broker about outstanding taxes, unpaid bills or unfinished business supposedly left by a recently deceased loved one.
- The caller pressures you to pay immediately and asks for payment by wire transfer, gift card or reloadable cash card — all bright-red flags for scams.
- You receive bills or spot credit card activity for expenses accrued after your loved one’s death.
- Do report a loved one’s death to Social Security as soon as possible by calling 800-772-1213.
- Do send a copy of the death certificate to the IRS so that officials can flag the deceased’s tax account.
- Do notify banks and other financial institutions that the late loved one used. If you close accounts, ask that they be listed as “Closed: Account holder is deceased.”
- Do notify the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) so that they can place a death notice in the deceased’s credit file. This should prevent fraudulent applications for credit from being approved. Get a copy of the deceased’s credit report right after death and a few months later, to check for fraudulent activity.
- Do be wary of “long lost” relatives or friends of the deceased who contact you (especially on social media) and raise financial issues or attempt to forge a relationship. Ask family and old friends if they know or recall the person.
- Don’t put too much personal information in an obituary. Leave out details that could be used for identity theft, such as the deceased’s date and place of birth, middle name, maiden name and mother’s maiden name.
- Don’t include the deceased’s home address. If the obituary also notes the date and time of the funeral, burglars can break into the presumably empty house during the service.
- Don’t make a payment or provide personal information about yourself or a deceased loved one to someone who contacts you out of the blue.
- Don’t let a debt collector scare you into paying financial obligations for a late spouse, parent or sibling. Generally, the estate, not the survivors, is liable for any debts. There are some exceptions for cosigned loans and jointly held financial accounts and under community-property rules in some states; the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has more information.
About the Fraud Watch Network
Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.
Published September 23, 2020
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