Scammers using obituary notices to acquire new victims

Family and friends of high-profile individuals seen as easy marks

funeral hearse
Credit: Thinkstock

Everyday, email-based scams circulate the Web targeting users of services such as iTunes, Amazon, PayPal, and Google.

Some are more focused, targeting customers of a certain bank; or those impacted by a recent data breach. But there's another level of attack that's harder to defend against, as no one truly expects them - targeted attacks.

The following is an example of a targeted attack, which focused on a single person and a single event in their life. It's an example of how low some criminals will go in order to run a scam.

If it weren't for skepticism of the potential victim – based on the reality of the situation - this scheme would have likely succeeded.

[Note: Names and other details have been redacted to protect privacy.]

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The first message in the scam is direct and personal. It's addressed to the fiancée of a high-profile person who took his own life, and directs her to respond in order to learn about a message that he supposedly left in the scammer's possession.

She's immediately skeptical, naturally so, and questions the scammer. For one, the scammer refers to her fiancé by his initials only and references his ex-wife and other family passively – as if to imply a big secret is about to be shared.

There's also the fact that the scammer used her work email, something that family and friends wouldn't do.

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The follow-up message from the scammer asks for trust, and offers a reasonable explanation as to why her work email was used over a personal address. As was the case in the first email, there's a hint of some sort of big secret to be shared, but only with her.

When told that the conversation was confidential, the scammer responds with the hook, demanding $2,500 USD (sent to an online payment service) in exchange for delivering 3 DVDs of papers and other "very important documents."

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The full email exchange is below, but the intention of the scammer should be clear by this point. Scams such as this are rarely reported to the public for a variety of reasons, but an exception was made in this case in order to raise awareness.

All of the personal information, including names, contacts, and situational details, were sourced from the public domain. In this case, the scammer used one or more obituary notices for the victim's fiancé, as well as Google and public media coverage surrounding his life.

While high-profile people are the likely targets in scams such as this, anyone can be a victim.

The criminals are tapping into a source of deep personal turmoil and confusion, pretending to offer something that doesn't exist, but that anyone who's tragically lost a loved one would want; closure. Or perhaps more importantly - answers.

Note: The victim in this scam contacted a friend and shared the emails, fully convinced that the entire situation was a setup. Their friend, who works in the information security sector, contacted XSS for assistance in reporting the scam to the proper authorities.

This process was completed late last week. However, neither law enforcement, nor the ISP, can comment on any actions that were taken after the initial complaint was filed. While there's hope the person responsible for this scam will be caught, it's possible that they'll fade away and disappear, a harsh reality when it comes to Web-based scams.

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