April 19, 2024
LA Times journalist Deborah Vankin found fake obituaries published about her online while still alive


Experts are sounding the alarm over a rise in AI-generated obituaries mysteriously appearing online. 

In one disturbing ‘obituary pirate’ case, an LA Times reporter read her own obituary and watched a video whereby ‘news anchors’ discussed her death.

Fraudsters are able to make money off ad revenue generated through the fake article and specifically target people with high-traffic searchable names, experts say.

The phenomenon is a twist on an old scam from the early noughties when ‘click farms’ emerged in which large groups of low-paid workers were paid to visit links to make criminals money. 

Dr Chris Pierson, CEO of cybersecurity firm BlackCloak, in Orlando, Florida, told DailyMail.com: ‘If you’re somebody who scammers are claiming are dead, there are only two things you can really do.

LA Times journalist Deborah Vankin found fake obituaries published about her online while still alive

Matthew Sachman, 19, died in a tragic accident that was exploited by ' obituary pirates' who falsely claimed he had been murdered

Matthew Sachman, 19, died in a tragic accident that was exploited by ‘ obituary pirates’ who falsely claimed he had been murdered

‘First, you should let everybody you know the scam is going round. Next, you should lock down all of your social media accounts and implement two-factor authentication.

‘You know if you’ve been targeted by this kind of scam, cybercriminals are looking at your details. You don’t want them getting into your accounts and setting up fundraising pages to get your friends to donate to.’

However, Dr Pierson added the scam was unusual because the primary reason was to profit from ad revenue rather than extract anything from the victim specifically.

Cybercriminals use AI to compose obituaries for trending names to generate clicks. 

In January, LA Times writer Deborah Vankin revealed she had been targeted by the cruel con.

One read: ‘Deborah Vankin, an esteemed journalist whose eloquent storytelling and insightful narratives illuminated the world around us, has passed away.’

It is likely Vankin was targeted due to her online presence as a journalist. 

She told CNN: ‘I oddly didn’t panic. I was mostly confused at first, then outraged.’

Another case involved 19-year-old Georgetown student Matthew Sachman who had died after falling onto the subway tracks in New York city.

Within hours, so-called ‘obituary pirates’ had posted articles claiming he had actually been murdered.

‘There were sites I’d never heard of, information that was completely wrong, it didn’t make sense,’ a family friend told the New York Times.

Dr Pierson added the scam was unusual because the primary reason was to profit from ad revenue rather than extract anything from the victim specifically. Pictured: A fake obituary dedicated to Vankin

Dr Pierson added the scam was unusual because the primary reason was to profit from ad revenue rather than extract anything from the victim specifically. Pictured: A fake obituary dedicated to Vankin

The phenomenon is a twist on an old scam from the early noughties when 'click farms' emerged in which large groups of low-paid workers were paid to visit links to make criminals money. Pictured: a fake news story claiming Brad Pitt had killed himself in 2016

The phenomenon is a twist on an old scam from the early noughties when ‘click farms’ emerged in which large groups of low-paid workers were paid to visit links to make criminals money. Pictured: a fake news story claiming Brad Pitt had killed himself in 2016

‘I was looking for the truth,’ Devan Mehrish, 19, a childhood friend explained. ‘But I didn’t find it there.’

‘We were trying to find out what happened, but we saw some weird things,’ David Lombardi, the owner of a nursery and furniture store in Nantucket where Sachman had worked a summer job.

‘I just stopped and thought, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’

Experts previously told the Times that content farming such articles would only generate around $100 a month from ad revenue and fake obituaries like Sachman’s only a penny or two. But if they do enough, this can quickly add up. 

The paper also tracked one origin of the false reports to an internet marketer in India.

Earlier this month Google announced it was making changes to the quality of its search engine  in a bid to tackle ‘spammy, low-quality content on Search.’

The company told USA Today it had ‘significantly reduced’ the presence of obituary scams in its search results. 



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