The scammers published obituaries declaring them dead. They were very alive

Obituaries for writer Deborah Vankin appeared online in January, complete with lurid images and flattering prose.

In videos accompanying the ads, “news anchors” discussed his death and used background photos of a car accident, a coffin leaving a funeral home, and a flickering candle next to his portrait.

They did not specify how or when he died.

“Deborah Vankin, an esteemed journalist whose eloquent and insightful stories illuminated the world around us, has died,” one obituary read.

But Vankin was very much alive, checking news and videos of her own death on her cell phone days after it was published.

Unbeknownst to him, Vankin had become the latest victim of scammers who fabricate death ads for clicks and ad revenue.

Some so-called “obituary hackers” are using artificial intelligence to create death announcements packed with keywords for Google searches, spreading scaremongering and misinformation, experts said.

That January morning, as Vankin read about her own death while sitting in the waiting room of a Santa Monica hospital where a friend was undergoing surgery, she felt a whirlwind of emotions.

“Strangely enough I didn’t panic. At first I was mostly confused, then outraged,” Los Angeles Times staff writer Vankin told CNN.

“I felt sad: reading your own obituary is a surreal experience. After talking to experts, I was afraid: for myself, for all journalists and for our society.”

Google announced new policies this month to keep clickbait obituaries and other spam and low-quality content out of search results. But for a few weeks this year, Vankin was among a group of people who faced their own mortality as fake news about their deaths spread online. Experts warn that growing AI technology will only make these disorienting scenarios worse.

Obituary hacking adds a new twist to old death scams

Death scams have been around for a long time, but scammers primarily focus on impersonating funeral homes to get cash from grieving families, said Joshua Klopfenstein, co-founder of Lindenwood Marketing, which offers digital services to funeral homes. .

Clickbait obituaries like Vankin’s are a sophisticated twist driven by the popularity and proliferation of low-quality AI-generated content, he added.

Obituaries are published on sites that publish a continuous stream of unrelated articles on random topics. They don’t contain much information, but they are full of keywords to capitalize on what people search on Google.

Vankin learned of his obituary through his father, he said, after he was alerted by an aunt who receives Google updates every time his name appears online. In an essay for the Los Angeles Times, Vankin shared his reluctance to read obituaries and how the experience changed the way he thinks about death.

She’s not sure how the scammers targeted her to kill her, she said, but she believes it’s due to an increase in online traffic on an article she had written about her anxiety while driving on the highway.

The scammers probably thought they would get more views for their content because she is a writer and has a thriving social media presence, she said.

Klopfenstein said the scammers’ reasoning in attacking obituaries makes financial sense to them.

“These scammers are right to realize the amount of traffic obituaries generate,” he said. “On most funeral home websites, obituaries account for 80 to 85 percent of all visitors. That said, a scammer needs to hack a bunch of obituaries… to get enough traffic to generate significant ad revenue.”

A series of incomplete obituaries have made headlines in recent months, with people on Reddit and other social media platforms sharing similar hoaxes about deceased relatives or people who are still alive.

Google said it is constantly updating its systems to restrict spam and combat spammers’ evolving techniques.

“With our recent updates to our search spam policies, we have significantly reduced the presence of obituary spam in search results,” a Google spokesperson told CNN. “At YouTube, we fight this content by rigorously enforcing our spam, deceptive practices, and scam policies.”

The new policies target obituary spam and low-level content to ensure they are not ranked in searches. “They are produced at scale with the primary intent of ranking game searches and offer little value to users,” Google posted in a blog detailing the changes.

Fake obituaries also target grieving loved ones

Brian Vastag’s ex-partner, Beth Mazur, committed suicide in December. Days later, after an organization co-founded by Mazur posted a message about her death, at least six obituaries appeared on random sites claiming that both people had died.

Vastag, who lives in Kapa’a, Hawaii, was headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Mazur had died, when he saw reports of his death circulating online. The fake obituaries pushed the real ones down in web searches, making it harder for Mazur’s vast network of friends to get the right information, Vastag said.

Vastag and Mazur had advocated for people with often-overlooked chronic illnesses and wrote articles together, and he believes that’s how the obituary hackers were able to connect them.

“The recent passing of Beth Mazur and Brian Vastag, both grappling with the challenges of chronic fatigue syndrome, serves as a poignant reminder of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity,” the fake obituary read.

News of their deaths caused confusion among some friends who thought the reports were real.

“I was dealing with the impact of losing someone and I was really upset because the obituary about me caused some stress,” Vastag said. “At least three or four people thought it was real.”

Most fake obituaries for Vankin and Vastag no longer appear in searches after Google enacted its new spam policy.

Earlier this year, obituary hackers also spread false information about Matthew Sachman, who died in an accident on New York City subway tracks. Scammers flooded search results with fake obituaries, including one that claimed he was stabbed to death, according to a New York Times report.

The newspaper traced the origin of the false reports to an Internet marketer in India. He told reporters that he doesn’t know Sachman, but he monitors Google trends data for words like “obituary,” “accident” and “death,” and uses an artificial intelligence tool to create a blog post that generates a few cents a month in advertising. revenue.

Fake Obituaries Are Cheap and Easy to Create, Expert Says

Creating fake obituaries is as easy as asking AI to generate some data about a person, said Robert Wahl, an associate professor of computer science at Concordia University in Wisconsin and an expert in AI technology.

“The initial costs for this are very low. You can use free services that are available on the Internet. And you can generate this for little to no cost. And it can generate some revenue, so there is an incentive to do it,” he told CNN.

Some of the scammers apparently operate from abroad, so the minimum income is sufficient for their cost of living, he added. The international aspect adds another layer of complication, as other countries’ laws make it difficult to prosecute scammers.

“It may or may not be illegal in all countries. So the challenging situation is trying to determine whether this is illegal activity, although it is certainly done in bad taste,” he said. “And this is for the most part something we cannot avoid. We just have to learn to identify the deceptions.”

Vastag hopes his story empowers people to be smart online consumers and know where they get information.

“The Internet has become a bunch of nonsense. There is so much misinformation and information contamination,” she stated.

Vankin, the Los Angeles Times writer, said the experience reminded her to be grateful for the life she has.

“It’s hard not to think about your own mortality when something like this happens,” he said. “I can’t say I’d like to make any major changes in my life right now, which is a good sign. But I do have travel plans on my bucket list – it lit a fire.”

It has also made him realize that one day his real obituary will be published. And when it does, he said, he hopes it’s written by a real person.

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