True Crime Thursday – Obituary Piracy

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: JR Harris – Unsplash.com

Ole and Lena had been happily married for many years. When Ole died, Lena wrote a long, glowing obituary about him. She took it to the local newspaper office for publication.

The editor said, “Lena, this is a beautiful tribute to Ole. That’ll be $975.

Lena said, “What????”

The editor answered, “We charge by the word for obituaries.”

Flummoxed, Lena thought for a moment. Then she wrote a new version:

Ole died. Boat for Sale.

~~~

Being a writer, I’m often tasked by family and friends to compose obituaries for loved ones. Apparently, I’m pretty good at it, judging from newspaper clippings that, years later, are still attached with magnets to family refrigerators.

But…recently I learned from a funeral director that obituaries aren’t what they used to be.

In previous centuries, they served as notice to a person’s local community that they had passed, listing accomplishments, naming family members, and inviting people to a funeral with a reception to follow.

Sometimes scofflaws show up at such receptions for free food. Sleazy, right? But no big deal.

Worst case, burglars read obituaries to find out funeral times and, while the family was at services, broke into the deceased’s home. Really stinkin’ but fairly rare.

Obituaries have long been an important tool for genealogists because of the wealth of family history in them.

According to the funeral director, the internet revolutionized obituaries. Information is no longer limited to the local community but is instantly accessible to billions of people around the globe.

Some of those people are criminals who found a new avenue for fraud:

Obituary piracy.

Consider the abundant facts in a typical obituary.

Full name (including maiden name);

Dates of birth and death;

Place of birth; place of death;

Full names of parents (including mother’s maiden name), siblings, children, grandchildren, predeceased family members, even pets;

Military service;

Employment history;

Medical information such as cause of death;

Miscellaneous personal tidbits like hobbies, travels, special talents, etc.

In other words, a treasure trove of information that provides unscrupulous data miners ways to profit from tragedy.

When a bank wants to verify the account holder’s identity, what do they ask for?

Yup, your mother’s maiden name.

What are common passwords to online accounts? Often, it’s names of children, grandchildren, and pets.

When you open an account or apply for a loan, what is required? You guessed it—facts that can be found in obits.

Data miners are skilled at extrapolating info gleaned from obituaries. That can lead to identity theft, intrusions into credit accounts and medical records, and child identity theft. 

A death triggers cascades of documentation that must be provided to government and private agencies including county, state, federal, Social Security, Medicare, IRS, property ownership records, banks, investments, pensions, etc., etc., etc.

Death certificates are generally recorded by each state’s department of vital statistics. Family Search offers how-to info by state: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/How_to_Find_United_States_Death_Records

The National Death Index (NDI) is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and is the database of all deaths in the US.

Because of identity fraud, death certificates that used to be public records now often have limited accessibility (for example, surviving family members).

Obituaries, on the other hand, contain similar information and are widely available to anyone with internet access. 

How many of us receive spoofed calls supposedly from the IRS or FBI or “your bank” or “your credit card company”? Spoofing is when criminals manipulate phone numbers to make calls appear to be coming from a legitimate agency or business.

Spoofed calls threaten dire consequences if we don’t immediately wire money or send gift cards to pay an alleged debt or avoid arrest. Hurry up because officers are on their way to your home this very minute.

Grieving widows and widowers are prime targets for greedy criminals. Bereaved families are vulnerable to such scams because they know death taxes are due and there are often debts to pay.

There are even more ways for scammers to profit from obituaries. Other variations on piracy include lifting obituaries from a legitimate funeral home site and pasting the content on a bogus website. The phony site often ranks higher than the legitimate site due to manipulation of search engine optimization. So, when people Google the deceased, they can easily stumble on a phony site at the top of page one.

Once there, readers are solicited to buy a virtual flower or candle to memorialize a friend or family member. At a buck a flower, thousands of obituaries add up to significant profits. You can even donate hundreds of dollars to plant an entire grove of imaginary trees.

What a meaningful tribute to a loved one.

(Note: legitimate funeral sites offer similar tribute options for additional profit. I’ll leave my opinion about that unsaid.)

Another alternative: the phony site may request donations to help with the family’s expenses. Of course, the family never receives donations because the scammer absconds with the money.

There is no real privacy in the 21st century. Hacking and data breaches are daily occurrences.  You may ask, since so much intimate personal information is readily available on the net, why worry about obituaries?

The answer is the same reason we still lock our doors. Yes, determined robbers can break into our homes.

But we don’t need to make it easier for them, particularly during stressful times of mourning.

Does that mean obituaries shouldn’t be written to honor the deceased?

No.

The funeral director I spoke with suggested limiting the people who receive an obituary by using email and social media groups where access is restricted to family and friends.

He strongly advises that sensitive, personal information be limited to the bare minimum.

Ole died. Boat for Sale.

~~~

TKZers: have you heard of obituary piracy? Do you know bereaved people who have been victimized by scammers?

Today I’ll be away from internet access so my responses to comments will be late.

~~~

 

If you visit Debbie Burke’s website, you can’t buy a flower or virtual candle. But you can find purchase links to her thrillers that include tons of personal information about her characters. 

This entry was posted in #truecrimethursday, online privacy by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, Flight to Forever, and Until Proven Guilty. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

34 thoughts on “True Crime Thursday – Obituary Piracy

  1. Thanks for this, Debbie. One other thing that you brushed up against when you discussed people locking the doors to their homes is that monsters — I have no better word — will note the time and place of calling hours and funeral services and then burgle the home of the deceased. The address can be obtained in many cases with a bit of online legwork.

    A neighbor of mine passed a few years ago. He was with the state highway patrol. His fellow officers parked cruisers in his driveway when his family members were away as a deterrent. It worked!

  2. Great post, Debbie. Thanks for all the warnings. I had not heard of most of these scams. It never ceases to amaze me how creative criminals can be.

    It must be depressing to collect all this information. Maybe you could write a book, “Writing Obituaries for Dummies.” And maybe it’s time to notify relatives and friends, “Well, the time is getting close. Please send me a SASE if you would like to receive a copy of my obit. And while you’re at it, send any memorial gifts now. I’ll make sure that they are put to good use.” (But, alas, the scammers would start doing that as well.)

    Have a good day!

    • Mom had a whole folder of items for the family regarding her death. It included an obituary, the songs and Bible verses for her funeral, a copy of her will, and all the info we needed to settle the estate. Family and friends wondered how we were able to have a funeral that was so Mom, and that’s how. The rest was so Mom, too.

      • I”ve had friends who were that well prepared, including one who wrote thank you notes to people who’d helped her.

        What a nice remembrance, Marilynn.

  3. Ole’s obit is hilarious, Debbie! Burglars have been breaking into mourners’ homes forever. Haven’t considered obit theft. You’re right. They hold tons of personal information for identity theft. Disgusting. Shame on the scum who preys on others’ grief.

  4. Obituary piracy? Virtual candles and flowers? Is there no depth to which these bottom-feeders will not go to get a few dollars?

    I suppose these kinds of atrocities have been around forever, but our online presence makes us more vulnerable. Stay safe out there.

  5. My father had some friends in kindergarten. There were three of them. They went to high school together. Started families. Had careers. One became a journalist. He wrote my father’s obituary. They had been friends for 60 years.

    • A family member was friends with four other guys from 3rd grade on stayed friends for 70 years. Sadly only three of them left. Lasting old friends are treasures. Glad your father had that, Alan.

  6. Ah, the good old days when scammers walked through cemeteries. You missed one funeral bit of disgust. Family members who skip the funeral and empty out the house. Some people are scum. For my dad’s funeral, we had one of the cousins stay at the house. Plus, our large dogs. Nothing happened, fortunately.

    Funeral homes and newspaper, here, supply short death notices free as a public service. The longer ones you have to pay for. A lot of the useful scam info like the address are no longer included.

    One use of online obituaries is searching for relatives you haven’t heard from recently. Crazy Cat Cousin, death queen of search engines, has discovered that the final surviving member of our Greatest Generation died last year several states down, and her obit included the fact that her son, the cousin closest to my age, died earlier in the year. The days when someone was in charge of calling family members has sadly disappeared.

    And speaking of tombstones, yesterday, the Atlas Obscura newsletter included a feature on the Bean Tombstone, famous for its crossword cypher.
    https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/bean-puzzle-tombstone

    • I’ve heard of several cases where shirt-tail relatives looted the house a day or two after the person passed.

      Re notifying others. In 1982, my best friend’s Christmas card arrived with only his wife’s signature. When I called his sister here in L.A., she said, “Well, he died.” He’d passed on that April at 44. She’d been asked to contact his California friends, but never got around to it.

      The world is going to hell in a handbasket.

      • For many years, I had exchanged Christmas cards with my oldest friend, even though we hadn’t seen each other since college. Card came back a few weeks later as undeliverable. Went on the net and learned she’d died in May. Wish I coulda said goodbye.

    • Obituaries have long been valuable tools for genealogists. What a shame that is ending.

      What a fascinating headstone story, Marilynn. Thanks for the link.

  7. Funny stuff actually. I’ve been in the oil and gas industry for thirty years, worked overseas, and seen many forms of piracy. One thing I consider piracy is knockoff parts – keeps my awake at night.

    Usually, items intended for sale meet standards. However, the so-called pirates come in, make a cheaper part – like in China – and sell it to NFPA, UCL, ANSI/CSA standards. We end up going through global supply chains to get what we need – pay full price – and end up with inferior stuff that can kill you.

    Had a company truck recently towing a trailer with 10 tones of equipment on it. The bolts, (which were replaced 2 weeks before the incident with knock offs), sheered off on the hitch. Thankfully no one died but my imagination went wild. What if that trailer hit a family van or some poor lady trying to get home. You’d never bring the criminals to justice.

    Sucks.

    • I’ve worked onshore and offshore. Guy I met worked inspecting some sort of high pressure safety valves or oilfield what-nots. They worked ’round the clock in an assembly line arrangement. He would lose consciousness from time to time, but kept on “inspecting” in his sleep. If he nodded off he had to tell everybody to put his last five minutes’ work back through inspection. Overseas they address that problem by just skipping that step altogether.

    • We ran across faulty bolts when we used to have a rental equipment business. Sheared off. Thankfully no one was hurt and we sent the rest of the bolts back. Hope the supplier didn’t turn around and resell to someone else. What if they were used in airliners??? Scary.

  8. One thing about crooks that can’t be denied, they can be very creative. Thanks for a great column.

  9. Points well taken. Scams abound in this digital age.

    I especially liked the Ole and Lena gag.

    A friend of mine from northern Minnesota, a Swede named Carlson, was always telling Ole and Lena jokes, and I believe they’re told by Youpers as well. Or something similar. I remember being in Nova Scotia some years ago (well, actually 43 years ago but there’s a time machine waiting in the garage for resurrection) and there were compendia of Newfie jokes in the book racks everywhere. It’s part of that self deprecating northern oriented dry humor that I love.
    Fans of this genre will appreciate the “Bert And I” monologues from down east.
    I have heard it said that some folks collect mottos and epigrams from graveyards and my favorite-probably apocryphal-is this:
    Here lies Jonas Blake
    He stepped on the gas instead of the brake.

  10. I never realized it, Debbie, but I’ve been an obituary pirate many times. As a coroner, it’s written in the act that coroner can only release a body to the legal next of kin, not some family friend or even a common law spouse. Sometimes, it’s really hard to find the legal next of kin and an old trick is turning to the obituaries. I’d just Google the decedent’s name with “obituary” and see what pops up. It’s kind of a reverse engineering process, but it wasn’t hard to find the obituary of someone who listed the decedent in the family list or find a relative who I could contact and work from there.

    By the way, as a pirate I’m interested in Ole’s boat. How much is it? Is it negotiable or open to trades? And what’s the address it’s parked at?

  11. Great post. Here in N. Mississippi, obits no longer tell what the person died of, but all that other information is there. Too bad criminals don’t put some of their energy to doing something useful. Love the joke.

  12. Great post, Debbie – thanks. I knew about all the old scams, but didn’t realise about the new ones. Just makes me sigh.

    Here’s a favourite epitath I read on a headstone in Heysham, in the UK, when I was 17 and fascinated by such things. It was from the 19th Century:
    A sudden change and in a moment fell,
    And had no time to bid my friends farewell.
    Think nothing strange, death happens unto all.
    My lot today tomorrow yours may fall.

  13. Kay, old cemeteries and tombstones can be fascinating. The grave market at the top of this post features a long, hand-carved obituary but unfortunately the photo quality didn’t come through well enough to read it.

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