Scams even target the terminally ill

by Sheryl Reichert

Sheryl Reichert, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

Sheryl Reichert, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

It is a despicable scam. Relatives of people who are terminally ill should be on the lookout for scams targeting weak or frail loved ones during their final days on earth.

Scams targeting the terminally ill often consist of stealing identities in order to fraudulently obtain money from insurance and bond companies. The scam requires lying to terminally ill individuals and their loved ones, as well as misusing financial products, including variable annuities and death bonds.

Variable annuities are investments akin to mutual funds with death benefits. The death benefits generally include a promise of guaranteed return of money invested plus a guaranteed profit — even if the market goes down — and various other bonuses and enhancements upon the death of the person named as the annuitant.

Death bonds are typically corporate bonds with survivor options. Under the terms of these bonds, the owner of a bond is able to redeem the bond at face value years or even decades prior to the bond’s maturity date upon the death of the bond’s co-owner.

The scam scenario often goes like this: The con man will buy annuities listing the terminally ill individual as annuitants and purchase bonds listing terminally ill individuals as “co-owners.” Then, when the terminally ill person dies, perhaps days or weeks later, the thief will cash in the death benefits associated with the investments. The family might receive a few dollars, but the con man normally keeps a significant portion for himself.

In recruiting terminally ill individuals for the scheme, the con man might visit an AIDS or hospice care facility or place an ad in a local religious newspaper offering cash to terminally ill individuals. Sometimes, he will claim to be a philanthropist and offer the terminally ill a few thousand dollars to assist with their funeral expenses.

Caregivers can help their loved ones by discussing the criminal nature of fraud and learn how to identify it. Also, have a calm discussion about the best way to handle the person’s finances in the future. Warning signs of fraud can include: the loved one has been writing checks or making withdrawals for escalating amounts of money to unfamiliar, out-of-state companies; they begin to act very secretively about phone calls; they begin having problems paying bills or buying food or other necessities.

The Better Business Bureau offers free educational information on how to be aware, informed and proactive so people can protect themselves against common frauds and scams. For additional consumer protection information, visit or contact the Better Business Bureau (BBB) by phoning (858) 637-6199 during regular business hours. Or, call the BBB’s 24-hour Consumer Helpline at (858) 496-2131 or 1-800-600-7050 to obtain free information on local companies along with a list of BBB accredited businesses in a particular type of industry.