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Inheritance scams

What are inheritance scams?

An inheritance scam is when a scammer contacts you out of the blue to tell you that you’ve been left, or are entitled to claim, a large inheritance from a distant relative or wealthy benefactor who has died overseas. The scammer will pose as a lawyer, banker or other foreign official and will advise that the deceased left no other beneficiaries.

Some scammers will provide a made-up name for your supposed relative. Others will use publicly available family history websites and gather the names of genuine deceased relatives to make the scam seem more convincing.

Some inheritance scams don’t refer to family members but rather to a wealthy person who has supposedly died without a will. The scammer may use news articles about a deceased person, for example following a highly publicised disaster, and claim that without an appointed benefactor, you are legally able to inherit the funds.  They may alternatively claim that you have been chosen as a lucky beneficiary.

The size of the supposed inheritance can be very large, sometimes many millions of dollars and is often quoted in foreign currency. You will be told that your supposed inheritance is difficult to access due to government and bank restrictions or taxes in the country, and that you will need to pay money and provide personal details to claim it.

The stories told by the scammer can be quite elaborate and they will go to great lengths to convince you that a fortune awaits. This includes sending you a large number of seemingly legitimate legal documents to sign, such as power of attorney documents. In some cases the recipient is invited overseas to examine documents and the money. The scammer will often organise an elaborate charade, complete with a safe full of money for anyone who takes up the offer.

Warning signs

  • You receive a letter, message or email out of the blue from a scammer posing as a lawyer or banker and offering you a large inheritance from a distant relative or wealthy individual.
  • Some approaches may be made through social networking websites. 
  • The offer looks convincing and may use official-looking letterhead and/or logos. It may contain spelling and grammatical errors.
  • You will usually be provided with a fake birth certificate and other documents if follow-up inquiries are made.
  • You may be introduced to a second or even third scammer – such as a banker, lawyer and tax agent - to help facilitate the legal and financial aspects of the transaction. 
  • The scammer asks you for your bank account details, copies of identity documents as verification, and to pay a series of fees, charges, certificates or taxes to help release or transfer the money out of the country through your bank. 
  • Fees may initially be for small amounts but the scammer will make up new fees or excuses that require your payment. 
  • The scammer will continue asking for money as long as you continue to send it, and may offer to meet to verify the proposal, but you will never receive your ‘inheritance’ in return.

Protect yourself

  • NEVER give credit card, online account details, or copies of important personal documents to anyone you don’t know or trust and never by email.   
  • Where possible, avoid any arrangement with a stranger that asks for up-front payment via money order, wire transfer or international funds transfer. It is rare to recover money sent this way.   
  • If you are unsure about the legitimacy of an offer discuss the matter with a lawyer in your own city or town - do not seek advice from anyone recommended by the people who have sent the letter/email. 
  • An internet search using the names or exact wording of the letter/email may also provide extra information – many scams can be identified this way. 
  • If you think you have provided your account details, passport, tax file number, licence, Medicare or other personal identification details to a scammer, contact your bank, financial institution, or other relevant agencies immediately.

Report scams

If you think you’ve spotted a scam, report a scam to SCAMwatch or contact the ACCC on 1300 795 995. You should also spread the word to your friends and family to help protect them.

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© Commonwealth of Australia 2014