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Scamming the Bereaved

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This is a con that is executed by the Hustler looking up recent obituaries and contacting the bereaved to complete a purchase allegedly begun by the dearly departed. The dead person put down a deposit (it says here), which is offered as a refund, to have something personalized for the bereaved. All the bereaved has to do is come up with the remaining 80 percent of the purchase price... which is many times the usual purchase price of the item.


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    Comic Strips 
  • Writer Tom Peyer and comic artist Andrew Pepoy depict this scam in a comic strip entitled The Obituary Hustle: A Thorough Inquiry into a Classic Con Game. In this example, the deceased man, Lowell Murgatroyd, is said to have purchased a sculpture of praying hands, made in the Holy Land and hand-inscribed by monks.
  • In a storyline in Steve Canyon, a college student looking for a part-time job is recruited by a pair of con men running this scam, who plan to use him as a fall guy if they hit trouble.

    Fan Works 


    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Blonde Crazy (also known as Larceny Lane), a con artist makes good money with this scam and he encourages Bert to join him in his endeavors. Specifically, the con involves pretending husbands had ordered "good luck charms" before dying. When the C.O.D. packages arrive, the widows are more than willing to pay for these "valuable" mementos.
  • The short film, Eight Ways To Hang Up On A Scammer, addresses this scam.
  • It's possible this was the scam Big Dan Teague of O Brother, Where Art Thou? was pulling before he met up with the boys. It's unclear, though- he only describes himself as a bible salesman, "in the service of the Lord", and went on to tell about how there were vast amounts of money to be made.
  • Mose Pray (and eventually his daughter Addie) run the Bibles from the Dead scam all across the Depression-era Midwest in the movie and TV series Paper Moon.
  • In Two Much (1995), a character pulls this con with paintings but gets in trouble when he tries to scam a mobster.

  • In Addie Pray (the novel from which Paper Moon was adapted), the main characters do this with bibles and pictures of the deceased. Addie mentions that even when they branched out into bigger and more lucrative cons, they kept a few bibles and picture frames in the trunk of the car because it was a fast and easy way to pick up a few dollars in an emergency.
  • One segment in After-dinner laughter: favorite stories of the famous & not-so-famous features a scam artist who scanned the obituaries and sent bills claiming deceased clergymen owed money for books like The Sexual Life of Greece and Rome, and Lady Chatterley's Lover.
  • Antiques Knock Off, by Barbara Allan, features a version of this scam involving an antique clock. A clock repairman explains how a con artist contacted a widow and claimed her recently deceased husband had put a down payment on the clock as a sixtieth wedding anniversary present. She gladly paid the remaining amount of one thousand dollars for a clock that was actually worth less than a hundred dollars. In a twist, this scam is actually used to cover up for another scam. In essence, the unscrupulous clock repairman suggests the widow has been a victim of this con as a way of explaining how she came in possession of a knock-off antique. In reality, the clock was a genuine antique when it was bought by her husband and when it was delivered. It was only later replaced with a knock-off by the watch repairman.
  • Reformed con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. has written several non-fiction books on scams. In The Art of the Steal, he demonstrates the dangers of trusting a man in a uniform by having a fictional widow, "Mrs. Clark," falls for this obituary con.
  • Roald Dahl's 1987 short story "The Bookseller" features con artist/rare book dealer William Buggage and his secretary, Miss Tottle, who regularly scour the obituary pages and send letters to the families of deceased rich men claiming that they placed an order for very racy (and expensive) rare books, and they'll be happy to keep quiet about the sexual predilections of the deceased as long as the bill is settled. The scam falls apart when they try to con the widow and son of a recently-deceased blind man.note 
  • In José Angel Gutiérrez's satirical book, A Chicano Manual on How to Handle Gringos, the author explains how "Chicano" con men pull this scam on elderly white widows.
  • "Clerical Error," by James Gould Cozzens, deals with a hustler who uses the blackmail version of this scam, sending invoices to the homes of deceased people demanding they pay outstanding bills for pornography purchases allegedly made by the deceased.
    • The Tales of the Unexpected episode, "Clerical Error," is an adaptation of this short story. Interestingly, that anthology series was known for adapting stories by Roald Dahl, whose short story, "The Bookseller" is very similar to Cozzens' tale, even featuring a similar reason as to why the scam is found out. The similarities between Roald Dahl's "The Bookseller" and Cozzens' "Clerical Error," are discussed in The Pretender, by David Belbin.
  • In "C.O.D. to a Corpse," by Tighe Jarratt, this con is pulled on one of the characters.
  • In "Correspondences," by R.T. Smith, the narrator has a prison pen pal named Dink, who has committed a plethora of crimes, including this scam. In fact, this con is described as a "time-honored" scam.
  • In "David Shore Ph D", by Herbert Spohn, a character mentions this scam when trying to help explain the mysterious letter that the main character received.
  • Death Of A Dreamer, by R.A. Bennett, has an inverted version of this scam. It basically goes like this: A con artist gets information from the obituaries and shows up at the widow's house claiming to be a friend of the deceased. He feigns surprise at the man's death and offers his condolences, apologizing for showing up at such an unfortunate time. The con man looks around for an object of value such as a watch or medal and informs the widow that her husband had promised to sell him this item before his death. He pressures the widow into keeping her late husband's promise. The item is then sold to someone else for a profit.
  • Death Of The Tin Mans Wife, by John A Broussard, has a version of this scam involving a roofing company, whose employees show up at the homes of recent widows and claim their husbands hired them to work on the house. They then pressure the women into honouring their husbands' "legal contracts."
  • In the short story, "Demon Training and the Ultimate Sin," the main character, who is desperately lonely, fantasizes about being visited by a con artist pulling this scam.
  • The plot of "Easy Money," by Evan Hunter, revolves around this con. In this version of the scam, however, the con artist doesn't always hide his knowledge that the person who supposedly ordered the Bible is deceased. He also allows the mark to pay for the engraved Bible in installments.
  • In Funism The New Religion, by Richard Halfpenny, the narrator talks about the reasons why people enjoy reading the obituaries. One of the reasons is to pull this scam on widows.
  • One of the brain teasers in Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles, by Paul Sloane and Des MacHale, tells the story of a con artist who would pull this scam. He would send invoices to the families of wealthy deceased men claiming the men owed money for pornographic books they had ordered. So, how did he end up getting caught? He sent an invoice to the family of a deceased blind man.
  • In the creative writing piece, "Honest As You Are Honest," Ann Braley Smith discusses a variant of this scam involving unpaid credit card bills before describing how she likes to waste the time of email scammers.
  • In The Jericho Flower, a novel by Stephen F Wilcox, one character is described as having pulled many scams, including this one.
  • Featured in Kill With Kindness by Dell Shannon, in which a character refers to the scam as an "old come-on" and a "little piddling con game."
  • In Made Men: Welcome to the Family, a game book for the Made Men RPG game, this scam is discussed, with the hypothetical character Jack pulling this on unsuspecting widows.
  • One of the routines in The Making of A Standup Comedian, by Jimmy Correa, features a variation on this con. The comedian states that he looks through the obituaries and shows up at the dead person's house claiming to be a long-lost lover or abandoned son. He then tries to weasel his way into getting some of the deceased person's money or belongings.
  • In Matchstick Men: A Novel About Grifters with Issues, by Eric Garcia, Roy and Frankie pull many cons, including a version of this scam involving roofing. This short con is omitted from the film adaptation.
  • "The Miracle He Missed," a short story by John Eades, features a con artist who specializes in this scam. He is shocked when a former victim claims an image of Christ miraculously appeared on the bible he sold her.
  • In "Mr Gullible And The Church Con", Rat talks about the cons he learned in prison and mentions this scam as one of his favorites.
  • In "Neither Rain nor Snow nor Pride nor Greed," by William T Lowe, this scam plays a key role in the story.
  • In "Payment Due," by Trey Barker, a con artist specializes in getting people to pay for C.O.D. (Cash on Delivery) packages that were supposedly ordered by their deceased relatives. He gets in trouble when a group of victims seeks revenge for the pain he has caused them.
  • In the short story, "Salvation Through Speed," Pastor Evans used to pull this con. In fact, a conversation with a mark was what inspired him to start the religious movement that is central to the story.
  • "The Obituary Scam," one of the short sketches in the collection Scam Skits for Seniors, deals with this con.
  • In "Slick Tongued Devil," by Craig Johnson, a conman unknowingly attempts this scam on a sheriff.
  • A Tangled Web, by Suzanne Rossi, features characters who pulled this scam. One character even argued that this scam is not as cruel as it seems, since the mark feels their deceased partner cared enough to purchase such a thoughtful gift.
  • Hustlers who pull this scam are discussed in The writer's guide to everyday life from prohibition through World War II, in which it is stated that only con artists with "guts" try to pull this scam in person rather than through the mail.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In one episode of Dragnet, "The Big Betty", a group of criminals uses this con to sell cheap junk at high prices.
  • Hustle:
    • A young conman pulls this scam on a number of elderly widows, but when he makes the mistake of taking money from Danny's grandmother, he becomes the protagonists' latest mark. To add insult to injury, he leaves the widows a brick wrapped in paper rather than some cheap trinket that they could treat as a memento of their lost husband. The guy had no class whatsoever. Due to the style of storytelling, we never realize this until the end as we think that the mark is actually joining them.
    • They themselves do a variation on this in which they read about a stolen painting and try and sell it to a third party. Unfortunately the third party is the original owner and they fail to realize that fact beforehand. He then takes Mickey hostage until they return the real painting.

  • A variation appears in the short play "Last Post" by Jean McConnell: A woman runs a con where she picks a wealthy, respectable, and recently dead man and writes to his widow asking for a contribution to the upkeep of their illegitimate child. (The play's heroine is the latest mark, and doesn't discover until the end that it's a con — whereupon she decides that the loss of the money is outweighed by the relief that her husband was after all the honorable man she's always believed him to be, and everybody gets a happy ending.)

    Web Original 
  • The Braingle website, which features brain teasers, riddles, and mental exercises, has one lateral thinking puzzle entitled "Blackmail", about a hustler who uses the blackmail version of this scam.
  • An entry in the blog, My Internet Diary-SECRET DO NOT READ, features a hypothetical scenario that reworks this scam in order to target secular humanists.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons: One of many scams attempted by Bart and Homer in the episode "The Great Money Caper", specifically aimed at Ned and involving a Bible which they claim Maude ordered shortly before she died. It doesn't work because Ned Flanders recognizes this plot from watching Paper Moon.

    Real Life 
  • A 1946 article in LIFE magazine claims that there was an increase in this type of con during World War II. Grifters would deliver packages to the families of servicemen and claim they had been ordered by the servicemen who were now in combat. Due to the lack of reliable communication between members of the armed forces and their families at the time, the servicemen didn't even have to be dead, only out of reach. The families would gladly pay any remaining amount necessary to get the packages they believed their relatives had ordered. Interestingly, the article states that another popular scam was the sale of "bullet-proof" Bibles which became popular after a story began circulating about a soldier who was saved when a Bible stopped a bullet from entering his body.
  • In 1982, a gutsy criminal apparently attempted to pull this con while already in prison. He even tried to get the widow to send the money order for the engraved Bible to the prison. The scam failed since the mark did not believe her deceased husband would ever have ordered such a Bible. [1]
  • The con artist, "Dead Man" Hicks, got his nickname from specializing in this scam.
  • In a 1941 profile article by John Richmond, con artist Jimmy Lally fondly recalls using this scam.
    Jimmy: I'd certainly work myself up feeling sorry for some of those widows. Sometimes I'd find myself crying too. I was terrific, better than John Barrymore.
  • Reversing this tactic is a common way of dealing with pesky telemarketers. Claiming the person they called for recently died is a good way of getting your phone number removed from their list.

Alternative Title(s): Bibles From The Dead