Investigating the Issues That Affect You Most

Obits Lead Con Artists to Grieving Family Members

BBB calls pitches a high-tech twist on an old scam

By Lisa Parker
|  Wednesday, Sep 1, 2010  |  Updated 11:15 PM CDT
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An old scam hits a new low when grief-stricken relatives receive emails from con artists claiming their recently deceased family members left them million of dollars.

An old scam hits a new low when grief-stricken relatives receive emails from con artists claiming their recently deceased family members left them million of dollars.

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One week after the death of her brother last July, Pam Lemeron opened up an email that first shocked, then angered her.

"It's telling me that they have discovered an account that my brother had, and that he had passed away and that he had left no beneficiary," Lemeron recalled.

She said the email went on to inform her that the amount -- a whopping $19 million -- could be all hers if she could prove that she is the deceased's sister and if she could then execute just one small detail.

"If you followed through with the next step, what they would have you do is set up a separate bank account and deposit $2,700," Lemeron explained.

Lemeron, who is a photographer in NBC Chicago's helicopter and whose video is seen regularly on television, did not bite. Neither did another would-be Chicago victim, Nate Scarpelli.

"This was the first time I saw anything involving a dead person," said Scarpelli, a retired patent attorney.  "One of the first or second lines in there said that there was somebody who passed away in the U.K. who had my last name.  He died along with his wife and three kids in a motorcycle accident."

That email, from a solicitor in England, claimed that Scarpelli may be an heir to the deceased man because they shared the same last name.

"I think it was over $6 million. So he was going to give me 30 percent, so I was going to get close to $2 million for basically doing nothing except saying that I was a relative or descendant of the person who died," explained Scarpelli.

He didn't fall for it.  But in some cases the scammers are pulling it off.  Authorities say their recipe relies on the bad economy,  grieving relatives and the Internet.

"The Internet has opened up Pandora's Box," said Chicago Better Business Bureau President Steve Bernas.

He calls the pitches a high-tech twist on an old scam.

"What we're seeing now more than ever before is that they're getting information from the Internet, whether it be from a site where there is a guest book where a lot of information is left -- addresses, e-mail addresses, city, birth dates -- whatever it may be. They're getting this information. They're reading the newspaper, the obituaries."

The scammers scour the obituary notices in a newspaper or online, then type the deceased's last name into a search engine.  In  Lemeron's case, her name popped right up, linked to online book and product reviews she had written.

"People don't realize how much information is really available on the Internet today. And it's amazing. If they only knew how much information they can find -- free of charge -- and we're just talking about spending a few hours on the Internet," said Bernas.

Scammers can put in a few hours of work and net a few thousand dollars.

"They're preying on people.They're turning people into victims here and it's not right. People who are already grieving, who are already distraught; they've lost their loved ones.  And now they're going to take their money away from them," said Lemeron.

Most of the letters reviewed by NBC Chicago fit a pattern: they were dotted with misspellings and grammatical errors, and always from a bank representative who claimed he was on a long-term training course in the United Kingdom.

He asks that relatives call him in the U.K., rather than his usual home in the Cayman Islands.  Authorities say that leads right in to the next stage of the scam, which asks targets to open a bank account so that the money can be transferred in.

The required amount to open an account in the Cayman Islands, they are told, is $2,700.  It's money that soon thereafter disappears from the account.

Target 5:  Investigating the Issues That Affect You Most

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