Dealing with the affairs of a loved one will usually be a time fraught with emotion. Hoping to get the process completed as soon as possible, relatives and friends will be working together to ensure that everything is in line with the wishes of the deceased.
For some, however, it can be seen as the ideal opportunity to commit fraud.
When it comes to fraud, no situation is immune, no matter how incomprehensible the likelihood may seem. In fact, fraudsters will actively use this lack of awareness to their advantage.
Death will often act as a convenient distraction for fraudsters; when people are in a highly emotional state, they are much less likely to be on guard and suspect anything strange. By utilising these circumstances, fraudsters may be able to gain access to money, assets or possessions that they are not entitled to.
How do the fraudsters do this?
Probate fraud is the most common way that criminals gain access to the estate of the deceased. By taking advantage of family members or those close to death, fraudsters will use manipulative techniques to obtain thousands of pounds worth of assets that were never meant for them.
How often does it occur?
Whilst it doesn’t often make the headlines, a report from the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) indicates that its significance has been largely underestimated. Currently, the cost is estimated to be around £150 million per year, with around half of solicitors surveyed stating that they had been faced with cases of fraud during the past 12 months.
One of the most cited reasons for its growth is the increasing use of technology. Criminals posing as a solicitor or probate practitioner may send an email to a legitimate beneficiary. Mentioning that they’re due to inherit a significant sum from an estate, the fraudster will request the beneficiary to cover all expenses before any information is actually released.
Whilst emails such as this may once have ended up in the junk folder, the increasing sophistication of criminal methods means that the beneficiary is far more likely to believe it. Considering the circumstances, it’s not hard to see why.
If a relative dies, the last thing someone is expecting is to fall victim to a scam – and that makes awareness of the risk even more important.
How to protect clients
As the risk of probate fraud continues to grow, it’s essential that the right preventative steps are taken in order to protect clients.
A good starting point is to ensure that clients are aware of the risk.
Whilst they may have a basic understanding of how probate works, they may not know of the vulnerabilities that it can expose. Detailing the possible ways that they can be targeted puts them on alert and ensures they know what to look out for.
This could include:
- Emails regarding inheritance payouts
- Amendment of a relatives’ will just before death
- High-value items going missing
- Significant sums of money being transferred
As well as protecting the estate of the deceased, informing clients of these risks also demonstrates that your practice is fully alert to the risk of probate fraud and instils confidence in your services.
Should you have any suspicion of probate fraud, ensure that you report it to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) at the earliest opportunity.