How scammers are using counterfeit obituaries to profit off deaths of loved ones

Mar 25, 2024, 10:26 PM | Updated: 10:40 pm

RIVERTON Josh Kochevar died unexpectedly last month. The unhappy task of writing the obituary fell to his older brother, Sam.

“I tried to go through and capture the memories of Josh,” said Kochevar. “It was good for me – the whole process to go through and write about him and let everyone know who he is.”

But to Kochevar’s shock, “Googling” Josh’s name turned up several other obituaries of his brother.

Scammers are creating fake obituaries as a means to make money either through ad revenues by generating clicks for their website, or by creating fraudulent fundraisers or store fronts selling flowers or gifts. (Winston Armani, KSL TV)

“It was just weird that it was without our knowledge without our consent or anything,” he said. “It was just random information.”

Kochevar says some impostor obituaries have Josh’s name right, but the wrong dates and places or the wrong photos even. Others appeared to have lifted lines from other peoples’ obituaries. And others used canned words and phrases that sound as though they were generated by artificial intelligence.

“Love, positivity and community connections,” his brother Sam read from one obituary. “In times of challenge, he stood as a beacon of light.”

Now, in addition to their grief, Kochevar says his family is unnerved someone would exploit their loss.

“It’s really sad, but there’s people in the world willing to do that,” he said.

Only takes seconds

But why would someone post bogus obits about his brother in the first place?

Kochevar asked us to investigate.

Sam Kochevar shows KSL’s Matt Gephardt several counterfeit obituaries of his younger brother, Josh, that he found online. (Winston Armani, KSL TV)

We found creating fake obituaries takes only a handful of keystrokes using a free artificial intelligence tool. We asked it to write an obituary for a young man and in less than six seconds, the tool began spitting out the fictional story of a teen who “tutored struggled classmates” whose life was “cut short by unforeseen circumstances.” The AI result even included a fundraising add-on asking for donations in lieu of flowers.

Money and malware

That brings us back to the “why.” The short answer is money. Scammers want to cash in on people who are grieving, says cybersecurity expert Zulfikar Ramzan of Aura.

“Scammers have essentially a captive audience,” he said. “They have no shortage of creativity in exploiting just unfortunate situations for their benefit.”

Ramzan says crooks can lead that captive audience to fake fundraisers, or fake online stores where they can order flowers and gifts that will never get delivered.

“People often in funeral contexts might want to order flowers or make purchases to really pay their respects to whoever’s bereaved or who’s passed away,” he said.

But that’s not the only way money gets made.

Josh Kochevar died unexpectedly last month. His brother, Sam Kochevar, says counterfeit obituaries of Josh began surfacing online within days of his death. (Winston Armani, KSL TV)

Obituaries can bring a lot of eyeballs to a webpage. More clicks mean more ad revenue for the imposters. Sam Kochevar showed us some of the counterfeit obituaries included tons of links or popup ads advertising products.

“It gets so many popups, you can’t even get down to what it’s trying to say,” he said of one such obit.

But there’s another “why” says Ramzan. A fake obit might host malware designed to infect phones or computers.

“Be careful of what site you go to,” he cautioned. “Don’t just go willy-nilly to any site that comes up.”

Avoiding counterfeit obits

Sam Kochevar says he’s still not clear on how the fake obits showed up before he finished Josh’s obituary.

“I want to protect his name and not have any false information going around,” he said.

KSL producer Sloan Schrage shows KSL’s Matt Gephardt that it can take just seconds for scammers to create an obituary using free artificial intelligence tools. (Winston Armani, KSL TV)

Typically, scammers scour news articles, funeral home websites and social media for death announcements where they can pull enough info to create a counterfeit obit.

Kochevar hopes telling this story will help prevent people who are grieving and looking for answers from getting ripped off.

“I’m sure it could happen to pretty much anyone in the community.”

Instead of going with any search result that pops up when you’re looking for someone’s obituary, go directly to the funeral home’s website. If you don’t know that info, then use a local newspaper’s website or reputable sites known for posting obituaries.

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How scammers are using counterfeit obituaries to profit off deaths of loved ones