4 Funeral-Related Scams to Avoid

The death of a loved one ranks high on the list of life's worst experiences. Unfortunately, just as our mortality is inevitable, so too is the presence of devious lowlifes who seek to take advantage of the bereaved. This article details four funeral-related scams and offers consumer tips to help you avoid falling victim to these schemes.

1. The Fictitious Company

Funeral Scams
Richard Ross Collection/The Image Bank/Getty Images

We're often cautioned not to believe everything we read on the Internet, but that warning should extend to traditional communication media, as well. For example, Clarence Corter, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, purchased a casket based on a slick four-color advertisement placed by "Celestial Burials," which appeared in his Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) magazine.

After his death a few years later, however, Corter's loved ones had to purchase a second casket from a funeral home for $3,500. Despite the seeming legitimacy created by its appearance in VFW magazines and elsewhere, Celestial Burials did not ship the purchased casket to the family's chosen funeral home when needed. In fact, the company existed merely to defraud unsuspecting consumers -- many of them military veterans. Ultimately, Clarence Corter proved to be just one of nearly 5,000 victims robbed of $2.4 million because of this scheme.

Consumer Tip: Regardless of where or how it is published, do not assume every advertisement you see for funeral/burial goods or services is a legitimate business unless you are already familiar with the firm. While communication companies (newspaper and magazine publishers, TV and radio stations, etc.) should and usually do run credit checks and ask for business references before running ads for new clients, this is not always the case. Moreover, modern technology makes it very easy for unscrupulous operators to create a facade of legitimacy (websites, business address, financial accounts and checks, references, etc.) that dupes consumers and communication companies alike.

2. The Official Letter

Those with criminal intent often use funeral-related scams to target senior citizens for several reasons. Foremost, the elderly generally prove the most receptive to making funeral and burial arrangements given their stage of life. In addition, many seniors live alone, having already lost a spouse or partner to death, which reduces the number of people who might ask too many questions or raise objections. (For a list of additional reasons why senior citizens are targeted for fraud, please read this FBI list of "Common Fraud Schemes.")

In Virginia, for example, seniors received official-looking letters from a company calling itself the "National Processing Center," which listed its address on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. (Another well-known building -- the White House -- is also located on that street.) Indicating that a new "government program" would pay 100% of the funeral costs for qualified applicants, many senior citizens mistakenly thought the U.S. Census Bureau sent the letter and, therefore, willingly provided confidential personal information that left them vulnerable to identity theft.

Consumer Tip: Whether via physical mail, e-mail, telephone, door-to-door, etc., never share your personal information with someone who initiated a request until you are satisfied that 1) there is a legitimate need for the info in order to continue/conclude a transaction you fully understand and desire, and 2) the requesting individual/company is legitimate. In the case of the "National Processing Center" above, for instance, the official-looking Pennsylvania Avenue address clearly listed a post office (P.O.) box rather than a physical "brick-and-mortar" address. This should have raised a red flag about whether this "government agency" was bona fide.

3. The Debt Collector

Film and literature plots have long used the unexpected appearance of a "stranger" to further their stories, but criminals have also borrowed this device from movies and books in order to prey on the bereaved. Because the Internet now provides a wealth of information about people -- much of it volunteered by individuals via social media sites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn -- learning significant details about someone's life is frighteningly easy.

Thus, it is common today for the criminally minded to scan obituaries in order to locate a suitable target. After gleaning information about the deceased from the Internet, the individual might simply phone one of the surviving loved ones listed in the obit and introduce him or herself as an "old pal from college" or someone who "went through basic [military] training" with the person who died. After spinning a tale that offers enough personal information to sound convincing, he or she then mentions an outstanding debt and asks how to collect it. (Some criminals are even brazen enough to attend the funeral in order to learn more about the deceased and/or identify the best person to contact about the fake debt.)

Consumer Tip: If someone contacts you or a family member during or after a funeral and claims the deceased owed him or her money, insist on receiving written/printed documentation of the debt so you can verify its legitimacy. Do not provide (or even confirm/deny) any personal or financial information until the claim has been substantiated. Asking for proof in writing might prove enough to deter the would-be debt collector, but if he or she persists or becomes threatening, then do not hesitate to contact the police.

4. The Unseen Visitor

As mentioned earlier, criminal lowlifes will scan obituaries in order to locate their next victim and, unbelievably, this can include the living and the dead. Within a few days of her death, for instance, two people broke into the home of Shelle Kilgrow in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. Inside, the thieves not only stole everything of value -- a haul estimated at $15,000 -- but they also vandalized the house, destroying what remained, before leaving. The police suspect that the burglars scrutinized the obituaries to locate Kilgrow's empty home and that this was not the first time they performed this despicable act.

Thieves can also use this same technique to identify surviving loved ones who will be away from their homes during a wake/visitation, funeral service and/or burial.

Consumer Tip: If a loved one dies and he or she lived alone, ask a neighbor or friend to watch the house and/or alert the local authorities that the home will be vacant just in case the police can drive by once in a while. In addition, if your name was listed in the obituary as a survivor, then you should ask a neighbor or friend to keep an eye out for suspicious activity at your home while you are away making the funeral and burial arrangements or attending the actual services.

"Awareness on funeral scams" by WLS-TV/DT. http://abclocal.go.com/wls/index. http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/consumer&id=9047184

"Scam Alert: Mailer scam claiming to help with funeral costs targets southwestern Virginia seniors" by WDBJ7 Web Staff. www.wdbj7.com. Retrieved April 7, 2013. http://articles.wdbj7.com/2013-04-03/funeral-costs_38256942

"Thieves target deceased woman's home, steal $15,000 worth of items" by Jennifer Stagg. www.ksl.com.  http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=10108346