FBI warns El Pasoans to beware of bereavement scams


EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Bereavement scams are on the rise, and the FBI wants El Pasoans to be aware of the risks.

Special Agent Terrance Gass explained bereavement scams are undergoing a resurgence as scammers take advantage of the fear, grief, and confusion pursuant to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Losing a loved one can take a huge toll physically, emotionally, and financially,” explained Special Agent Gass. “It’s hard on its own without having to think about fraud on top of it.”

One common scam is credit fraud by taking out credit cards under a deceased person’s name. Scammers will also pressure a grieving spouse, friend, or family member into paying them for a false benefit under a fake insurance scam. Scammers will invite those grieving to pay fees to reinstate life insurance policies that do not exist.

Another common scam is identity theft. Scammers use the deceased’s social security number to create a new identity.

In 2019, Texas saw 134 million cases of identity theft. From January 2020 to April 28 ,2020 more than 7 million claims of identity theft.

“Nearly 800,000 people are specifically targeted after death because no one is checking their credit report,” says Special Agent Gass. Scammers can discern a person’s personal information from an obituary to fraudulently open credit cards, apply for loans, or file tax returns for the refund.

Gass explained it starts with scammers poring through obituaries to pick a suitable target. Some scammers will go so far as to call to inquire about a funeral service or even attend. 

“The scammer may claim that the individual has an outstanding debt with them in an effort to extort relatives,” said Gass.

“Or they’ll start social engineering family members via email or social media by claiming the deceased’s left them a confidential message that must be kept secret. They insist on strict confidentiality, and after a few emails it turns out they want $2,500 in exchange for three DVDs and other very important documents.”

The scammers prey upon the heightened emotional state of the grieving, who are more vulnerable.

Gass advises to be mindful of the amount of personal information that is provided in a public obituary. For example, include the deceased’s age but not their birthday, middle name, home address, work place, or mother’s maiden name.

Additionally, it’s recommended to refrain from naming surviving family members. Gass acknowledges this is hard, but ultimately protects the deceased and their loved ones.

The FBI recommends obtaining a credit report for the deceased right after death and also a few months after, which will help identity any unknown or unusual activity after death. It’s also recommended to contact credit reporting bureaus to flag the person as deceased, which will permanently prevent new credit from being issued. To do this, proof of death certificate must be provided as well as proof the person reporting is the deceased’s spouse or executor.

The Social Security Administration, IRS, credit card issuers, mortgage companies, and banks must also be notified.

Email scams targeting the grieving are also prevalent.

Special Agent Gass says the foreign-based actors have been sending fake emails under the guise of funeral invitations that infect computers with malware. The subject lines often read “funeral notification” or “passing of your friend,” which are indicative of scams.

The FBI advises people to practice use cyber hygiene:

  1. Do not open attachments or links from unknown senders
  2. Do not give personal information via email or phone
  3. Verify website addresses
  4. Check for misspellings

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