No matter how prepared you may be, the loss of a beloved spouse is bound to leave you reeling. Unfortunately, some people specifically target widows in this vulnerable time for predatory scams that can really hurt your financial plan.
For the scammer who is out to make a dishonest dollar, there is no sympathy for grieving widows. Where others would see heartbreak or courage, a scammer only sees opportunity. Women typically outlive men, but men often handle financial matters, especially in older couples, so they figure that a widow may be less likely to spot something unusual in her finances.
You might tell yourself, “I’d never fall for one of those Nigerian Prince scams from my email”—glad to hear it!
But scammers are always coming up with different ways to make a buck. That’s why we put together this list of some of the most common scams that target widows. Scammers are only interested in one thing: an easy target. By just being aware of a few common tricks, you can keep yourself from falling victim to their schemes.
The Sweetheart Scam
The “sweetheart scam” takes advantage of the fact that you may be still stinging from the loss of your spouse, and in a moment of loneliness might welcome some new, friendly attention. The scammer will often reach out with a fake social media account, or connect through a dating site.
It’s only natural to want to strike up a new friendship to help distract you from your loss, or to share it with someone else. Victims of this scam sometimes report they were so eager to engage that they were even willing to ignore early red flags.
How the Sweetheart Scam Works
The sweetheart scam is when someone (or a group posing as a love interest) manipulates their victim with feelings of “love” as a setup to eventually ask for money. The red flag here should be any request for money from someone online, however innocent or sympathetic the reason seems to be.
The scammer may be willing to play the long game, sending messages and getting to know you really well, often by leveraging publicly shared information through social media.
Eventually, though, the conversation inevitably turns towards money. They may claim to have sustained an injury, or need to borrow money to pay some bills, or want to include you in an investment opportunity. Whatever the excuse, the scammer will try to pull on your heartstrings to request some sort of financial assistance.
Once a scammer is recognized for what they are—and this can go on longer than you might expect—there is little chance of getting justice for this cruel act. As one Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service Tampa Field Office put it:
With most internet scams, including the sweetheart scam, it is difficult to identify the perpetrators due to the fact that they are usually conducting their business from outside of the United States…In most cases, the victim’s best option is to break off communication with the scammer as soon as possible and cut their losses.
In a state of recovery from a great loss, this sort of thing can happen to anyone who isn’t vigilant.
One good rule of thumb is to ignore random friend requests on social media. Even if you’re part of a support group for widows online, if they’re not carefully monitored a scammer can easily reach out with a friend request and follow up with a private message to get the conversation started.
Tax Identity Fraud
If a scammer can get away with it, they’ll bypass any kind of relationship and go straight for your pocketbook. One way they’ll try to catch you off-guard is through something called tax identity fraud.
Here’s how it works: After your spouse has died, you will be due certain tax benefits—this is what the scammers are after. Sick as it may sound, many scammers actively follow local obituaries, looking for a potential victim in the widow of the recently deceased.
Sometimes, using just the personal information offered in an obituary or funeral announcement, they can get enough info to file a return on your spouse’s behalf.
The most effective way to defend yourself from this particular scam is to protect Social Security numbers at all costs. Legitimate organizations, such as the IRS, will never ask for this information via email or over the phone. Only enter your SS# on websites you are familiar with and don’t be afraid to ask someone else if it sounds legitimate.
Scammers who scour the obits are banking on the likelihood that your departed spouse left their finances to you, which means they can come calling with any number of services, purchases or orders that you might reasonably suppose must have belonged to your spouse.
One Detroit widow was scammed out of $30,000 by someone pretending to belong to Best Buy’s Geek Squad, only one week after burying her husband. A legitimate-looking email regarding an automatic charge led to a phone call and a cancellation request, but there were “technical difficulties” and the next thing she knew this victim was giving these “experts” access to her computer. That’s all it took.
”I was vulnerable, and they knew it,” said the widow. “I would never have done this if I was in my right mind.”
This kind of calculated attack can come in the form of an email, a phone call or even an official-looking envelope or bill.
One way you can check the legitimacy of emails is by looking closely at the sender’s address to make sure the address following the @ sign is real. If it doesn’t match the site they claim to be from, that’s a big red flag. Or wait to have someone else look before responding to any email from someone you don’t know.
Preparation Is Your Best Defense
Scam artists are banking on vulnerable and unprepared victims who don’t fully understand their financial picture. By taking control of your finances after your spouse passes, you can build another hedge of defense against their tricks.
While going over your finances, consider updating your estate plan. This will give you the opportunity to take an account of all your assets, digital and physical, providing yet another opportunity to freshen up on where your money is kept, so you can keep it safe.
If You’re Uncertain, Check with a Professional Before Proceeding
Trust your gut. If something feels off, there’s no rush. If they try to rush you, that’s a good sign you should probably not proceed. And don’t be afraid to hang up the phone if you are uncomfortable. If it’s legitimate they will call back.
Run the whole situation by a trusted professional, such as your financial advisor. As financial professionals, we have heard of pretty much every scheme out there, and there’s a good chance we can tell you pretty quickly whether you should proceed or not. There is no shame in asking for guidance. We are here to help you, not judge you.
Struggling to make sense of your finances after losing your spouse? Click here to download “The Next Chapter: A Financial Guide After Losing Your Spouse.”