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Protecting Bereaved Families from Fraud

By: T. Scott Gilligan, OFDA General Counsel

The Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, have developed a brochure for funeral homes to distribute to families they serve. The purpose of the brochure is to alert families that criminals and scam artists will often target bereaved families. The brochure contains a number of helpful tips and recommendations so that families can avoid being a victim of crime during and after a funeral.

Many funeral homes routinely alert families about the risks of fraudulent acts that may be directed against them during the time of a funeral. Funeral homes currently providing these advisories may want to closely review the tips culled from the Wisconsin brochure and update the information they are providing to families. If a funeral home is not currently providing information to a family, it may want to put together an information sheet or brochure to help protect their families.

The brochure makes the following recommendations regarding actions that bereaved families should and should not undertake:

1. Personal Information
Family members should never provide personal information of the decedent such as a social security number, credit card number, bank account number, to anyone calling on the telephone or soliciting the information through the Internet.

2. Bogus Bills
One fraudulent scheme that is sometimes employed by criminals is to scan the obituary column and send bogus invoices to the home of the decedent assuming that the individual handling the estate will simply write a check. Never pay bills on behalf of the decedent unless it can be verified that the transaction actually took place.

3. Identity Theft
Family members are advised never to give out information over the telephone to individuals claiming to be doing genealogy research or verifying information printed on birth or death certificates. This is a frequent scheme used by identify thieves.

4. Home Improvement Contractors
The brochure strongly recommends that families never allow a home improvement contractor into the house to begin a project that they claim was contracted by or initiated by a decedent.

5. Appraisals
Another scheme utilized by criminals is to offer free appraisals of the deceased's valuables like coin and stamp collections or antiques. The brochure recommends never to do business with anyone who "cold calls" a prospective client immediately following a death. Reputable businesses would never "cold call" potential clients following a death.

6. Preventative Steps During Funeral Ceremonies
Criminals will often target a family's house during a funeral or a visitation. It is easy enough to determine from the newspaper obituary when the family will be at the funeral home and not at home. Family members should be advised to have a trusted friend stay at their home or ask one of the neighbors to frequently check the property during a funeral or visitation. Family members should also set interior lights to operate on a timer and leave a radio or television playing loudly. Another tip is to park a car in the driveway.

7. Out-of-Town Funerals
When traveling to an out-of-town funeral, the family should not stop mail or newspaper deliveries. Rather, have a neighbor pick up the mail and newspapers. Also, families should not change their answering machine message to indicate they are on a trip.

If any members have questions regarding the crime prevention brochure, please contact Scott Gilligan at (513) 871-6332.

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