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Scammers posted obituaries declaring them dead. They were very much alive

Obituaries for writer Deborah Vankin popped up online in January, complete with morbid images and flattering prose.

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

They did not specify how or when she died.

“Deborah Vankin, an esteemed journalist whose eloquent storytelling and insightful narratives illuminated the world around us, has passed away,” one of the obituaries read.

But Vankin was very much alive, scrolling through news and videos of her own demise on her cellphone days after they were posted.

Without her knowledge, Vankin had become the latest victim of scammers who fabricate death announcements to get clicks and ad revenue.

Some of the so-called “obituary pirates” are turning to AI to create death announcements padded with key words for Google searches, spreading alarm and misinformation, experts said.

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

Deborah Vankin: "Reading your own obituary is a surreal experience." - Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times
Deborah Vankin: "Reading your own obituary is a surreal experience." - Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times

“I oddly didn’t panic. I was mostly confused at first, then outraged,” Vankin, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, told CNN.

“I was sad – reading your own obituary is a surreal experience. After speaking with experts, I was scared – for myself, for all journalists, and for our society.”

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

Obituary pirating adds a new twist to old death-related scams

Death-related scams have been around for ages, but scammers mostly 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 fueled by the popularity and proliferation of low-quality, AI-generated content, he added.

The obits are posted on sites that publish a continuous stream of unrelated articles on random topics. They don’t contain much information, but are filled with key words to capitalize on what people are searching on Google.

Vankin found out about her obituary from her dad, she said, after he was alerted to it by an aunt who gets Google updates every time her name appears online. In an essay for the Los Angeles Times, Vankin shared her reluctance to read the obituaries and how the experience changed how she thinks about death.

An AI-generated obituary for Deborah Vankin circulated online earlier this year. - Obtained by CNN
An AI-generated obituary for Deborah Vankin circulated online earlier this year. - Obtained by CNN

She’s not sure how scammers picked her to kill off, she said, but believes it’s due to a spike in online traffic on a piece she’d written about her anxiety when driving on the freeway.

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

Klopfenstein said the scammers’ rationale on targeting obituaries makes financial sense for them.

“These scammers are correct in realizing the amount of traffic that obituaries drive,” he said. “For most funeral home websites, obituaries account for 80% to 85% of all visitors. That said, a scammer needs to pirate a ton of obituaries … to get enough traffic to generate significant ad revenue.”

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

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

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

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

Fake obits also target grieving loved ones

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

Vastag, who lives in Kapaʻa, Hawaii, was headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Mazur had died, when he saw reports of his death circulating online. The fake obits pushed the real one further 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 illness and written articles together, and he believes that’s how the obituary pirates were able to connect them.

Brian Vastag: "The internet has turned into a pile of nonsense. There’s so much misinformation." - Courtesy Brian Vastag
Brian Vastag: "The internet has turned into a pile of nonsense. There’s so much misinformation." - Courtesy Brian Vastag

“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 a few friends who thought the reports were real.

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

Most of the hoax obituaries for Vankin and Vastag no longer show up in searches after Google enacted its new spam policy.

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

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

Fake obituaries are cheap and easy to create, expert says

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

“There’s very low startup costs for this. You can use free services that are available on the internet. And you can generate this for little to no cost. And it can pay some revenue, so there’s an incentive to do it,” he told CNN.

Some of the scammers seemingly operate from overseas, making the minimal revenue sufficient for their cost of living, he added. The international aspect of it adds another layer of complication, with other countries’ laws making it harder to prosecute the scammers.

“It may or may not be illegal in all countries. So the challenging situation is trying to determine whether it’s illegal activity — even though it’s certainly done in poor taste,” he said. “And so this is for the most part something we cannot avoid. We just have to learn to identify the hoaxes.”

Scammers posted obituaries claiming Brian Vastag died together with his former partner, Beth Mazur. - Obtained by CNN
Scammers posted obituaries claiming Brian Vastag died together with his former partner, Beth Mazur. - Obtained by CNN

Vastag hopes his story will empower people to be savvy online consumers and be aware of where they’re getting information from.

“The internet has turned into a pile of nonsense. There’s so much misinformation and information pollution,” he said.

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,” she said. “I can’t say that I wanted to make any major changes in my life right now — which is a good sign. But I do have bucket list travel plans brewing — it lit a fire.”

It’s also made her aware that one day, her real obituary will run. And when it does, she said, she hopes it will be written by a real person.

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