How to Avoid an Inheritance Scam

elderly couple walking through maze

Inheritance scams have been around forever, and they’ve only gotten more common with the increase of online communication. Unfortunately, if the victim falls for the scam, they’ll only inherit the loss of funds, possible identity theft and more. Here’s what you need to know about inheritance scams and how to protect yourself.

How the scam plays out

In an inheritance scam, a target will receive an email or letter, allegedly from a lawyer, informing them they’ve inherited a large sum of money from a recently departed relative. The exact amount of money referenced in the scam will vary, but it can be as high as several million dollars. The target will be asked to pay an upfront fee for the ability to claim their inheritance. The scammer claims this money will help cover the cost of legal fees, taxes and other expenses that are related to the transfer of the inheritance. Unfortunately, if the target agrees to pay the “processing fee,” they’ll never see this money again, and they certainly won’t see the inheritance they’ve been promised.

In another version of the inheritance scam, the target is asked to share personal information, including their checking account details, so the inheritance can be transferred to their financial institution of choice. Of course, the scammer has no interest in sharing any funds with the victim, and will instead use the victim’s personal information to empty their accounts and steal their identity.

Scammers use several ploys to make their deceit appear authentic. In both versions of the scam, the victim will be instructed not to share the news of their good fortune with anyone. This stops the victim from reaching out to another family member to question the authenticity of the inheritance. In addition, the email or letter informing the victim they’ve inherited a large sum of money will often include personal details about the victim’s life, such as their home address, names of their relatives and more. All of this information can generally be found on the internet and other public sources. This, too, can lead the victim into believing the scam is legit.

Red flags

Protect yourself from falling victim to an inheritance scam by looking out for these red flags.

  • You’ve supposedly inherited a fortune from a distant relative you barely knew.
  • You’re asked to pay a processing fee to receive an inheritance, and the fee can only be paid via prepaid gift card or wire transfer.
  • You’re asked to share personal information, including your checking account number, to receive an inheritance.
  • You receive a letter or email informing you of an inheritance you’ve just landed, but it’s full of typos and grammatical errors.
  • The sum you’ve allegedly inherited is enormous, potentially into the millions of dollars.
  • The email from the “lawyer” uses an address that’s in a public domain, like Yahoo or Gmail, and not that of a private firm’s web domain.
  • A quick online review reveals the street address and phone number that any “estate lawyer” provides you are bogus.

If you’re targeted

If you believe you’ve been targeted by an inheritance scam, take these steps to protect your money and your information, as well as to help law enforcement agencies catch the scammers.

  • Do not respond to the letter or email. Delete the email and mark it as spam.
  • Never share personal information with an unknown contact.
  • Never wire money or share a prepaid gift card with an unknown contact.
  • If you receive notification you’ve inherited a large sum of money, reach out to family members to find out if it’s legit.
  • If you receive a an email or letter from an alleged lawyer, do an online search for their name, street address and phone number. If nothing shows up, Google this information again, along with the word “scam”.
  • Don’t click on any links in an email from an unknown contact.
  • Report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Inheritance scams are an old trick, but a potentially successful one. Use the tips outlined here to stay safe. Keep yourself in the know by signing up for Fraud News and Alerts to receive weekly email updates about the latest scam news.