An American journalist read her own obituary online, and soon discovered the strange world of obit pirates

By Lucia Stein for the ABC

American journalist Deborah Vankin was surprised to discover one morning that the internet believed she was dead.

The day started like any other, with a frenzy of activity as she raced to get out the door in time for a work meeting.

But as Vankin grabbed her purse and prepared to leave her home, she received an unusual call from her father with some news that was making its way down the family grapevine.

“The first thing he said was, ‘Please don’t be alarmed by what I’m about to send you or what I’m about to tell you, but there’s an obituary out there for you that I just read,'” she told the ABC via a video call from Los Angeles.

(She was very much still alive.)

A Google search by her loved ones unearthed an array of obituaries.

One – titled “Arts And Culture Writer At Los Angeles Times Sadly Passed Away” – included descriptions of her career accomplishments and details of her relationships.

Vankin didn’t search them herself and initially dismissed it all as a scam, reassuring her father she was fine before hanging up and having similar conversations with the rest of her family.

The news had unsettled the journalist, leaving her “confused” and “a little bit frightened”, but she quickly went back to performing the mundane daily tasks that keep all of us busy.

“I understand enough about psychology to know that I was probably putting it off,” she recalls.

But weeks later, as Vankin sat in a quiet hospital room waiting for a friend who was undergoing surgery, a mixture of boredom and curiosity finally drove her to find out what people were writing about her online.

In a place where professionals make life and death decisions every minute of every day, Vankin opened her email and scrolled until she found a message with a link to one of her obituaries.

“I read the obit and nothing can really prepare you for that,” she said.

“I immediately felt sort of shocked. And I felt, physically, my heart race and I was having a sort of anxious response when I was reading it.

“And then I felt sad. I actually felt a true sadness, reading this.”

The feeling drove her to find answers about who was behind the hoax and what was driving it.

What she uncovered was a sprawling network of spammy, low-quality publishers churning out obituaries generated by generative Artificial Intelligence and “obit pirates”.

The murky cottage industry behind these websites seeks to take advantage of a void of information about someone’s death or search interest in their name and make a quick buck.

But it is having a chilling effect on the subjects of the obits and their loved ones and has prompted one of the world’s biggest companies, Google, to crack down on the practice.

Journalist Deborah Vankin found herself at the centre of an elaborate obit scam after receiving a call from her father. (Supplied: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

How ‘obit pirates’ exploit tragedy on the internet’s high seas

Obit piracy isn’t as old as other forms of internet fraud but it has been around for some time.

Recently the practice has attracted more attention following a tragic accident involving a teenager in the United States.

Matthew Sachman fell on New York’s subway tracks and was killed in front of a moving train on New Year’s Eve.

But as family and friends went searching for information about the young man’s death online, they were instead presented with false information on his age, where he lived and the circumstances surrounding the end of his life, according to the New York Times.

Just like Vankin, Sachman’s friends and family were ensnared in the devilish practice of obit piracy.

Anonymous internet fraudsters use search engine optimisation (SEO) to identify people looking up the name of someone who has recently died.

They then create “obit” stories about this stranger by scraping details of their life from social media and other websites.

It is worth noting there are some legitimate operators in this space, such as, which works with funeral homes and offers to help users write and publish death announcements.

But bad actors are polluting the search results with poorly written obits that can sometimes contain misinformation or, as in Vankin’s case, “kill” someone who is still alive.

So why do they do it?

Obit pirates hope to capitalise on search interest in a particular person, often including keywords in their stories so the content can be ranked highly on Google and therefore direct traffic to their site.

Vankin believes her name was hijacked because of a story she wrote weeks prior to the obits surfacing about her online, which may have tipped “obit pirates” off to interest in her name.

If the spam website receives enough clicks, the people behind them can then try to sell space for advertisers to display ads, making money every time someone visits their page and clicks on a promotion.

Unlike other scams, where everyday consumers are singled out and defrauded of their hard-earned cash, the anonymous obit creators appear to mostly target companies paying for digital advertising.

“I think a lot of people, when they think of scamming, they think of something that’s a direct harm to them, where someone’s trying to access [their bank account], or get them to pay for services that don’t exist or something like that,” says Professor Lisa Given, who teaches information sciences at RMIT University.

“Whereas this is an interesting one, because it’s almost like a third party’s revenue.”

But there is some debate about whether obit pirates, in their hunt to exploit a person’s tragedy, are really making that much money from their efforts.

Is obit piracy big business?

Before our interview, cyber security expert Mohi Ahmed decided to casually search for my obituary using Meta’s AI tool.

As we chat over Zoom, Ahmed shares the screen and shows me the results of his efforts.

After a few simple prompts from the lecturer, the program produced an obituary for a woman with the same name as me, who was born in 1944 and died in 2017 and is described as a renowned “artist, feminist and activist”.

We both know that isn’t me – besides the obvious fact I am still alive, I couldn’t fool anyone into thinking I’m 80 years old – but Ahmed says accidentally using the details of the wrong person might not matter to someone hoping to capitalise on search interest in a name.

In a matter of seconds, with a few simple clicks of some buttons, Ahmed shows me how easy it is to copy and paste the AI-written obit and search for an image to accompany the text.

“[It’s] quite cheap, and you don’t really need to employ a lot of people [to make these obits],” he said.

It is difficult to know how much of a role generative AI is playing in fuelling obit piracy, but at least one man who has published an obit about a stranger, in an interview with the New York Times, revealed he could use an AI tool to create a short article.

“There are many, many ways cyber criminals can launch this type of scamming campaign,” Ahmed said.

“And they are successful because they have access to the tools, they have access to information about victims, and then know where they are going to be able to manipulate this news and become successful.”

Success is the key word here, and for obit pirates that is measured in dollars. Revenue is made through ads, often drawn from a search engine’s ad network.

“Let’s say it’s 10 cents a click or whatever it might be, it’s a matter of scale and reach,” Professor Given explains.

“So if you’re targeting someone in this obituary, who is a celebrity that is very well known to the public, that’s going to get broader reach and therefore more clicks.

“…If you’re then doing that for multiple different types of people, you can imagine that those clicks, and those small pennies on the page do start to add up over over time.”

Some scammers claim to have earned thousands online, though experts suggest it is probably closer to hundreds of dollars.

What is clear is that where there is money to be made, bad actors will follow.

When Deborah first started digging into the murky world of fake obits, she quickly discovered it wasn’t limited to articles but also videos on YouTube.

The footage about her legacy, which was seen by her brother, featured adult men reciting details about her life.

The low-budget videos are a new frontier of obit piracy. While spammy obit websites have been operating for years in the shadowy corners of the world wide web, recordings of death announcements are a more recent phenomenon.

Some videos feature a “reporter” summarising a stranger’s life into the camera in emotionless, stilted language, while others are voice overs overlaid with generic footage of flowers and candles.

Entire Reddit threads show the harm these crude videos are causing to family and friends, who often discover them while grieving a loved one.

One user reported finding an obit video, which included footage of a car crash, despite it being unrelated to how his friend had died.

“We live in a very small area so I can’t even imagine how this person would have found this to post about to begin with,” they posted.

According to Ahmed, it is unsurprising that obit pirates have moved onto other platforms like YouTube, since it is where large audiences are.

“Things are changing rapidly. People with malicious intent, they are capitalising on this and cashing in on this,” he said.

While it is debatable how legal obit piracy is, Professor Given said it bears all the hallmarks of a scam, with the ability to lure in others hoping to make a quick buck off grieving relatives.

The dilemma of people thinking you’re dead

After Vankin published her article on obit piracy, she came across another odd twist in the tale of her fake death.

“After the article [about my fake obit] was published, I knocked on the door of a source who I was there to interview,” she said.

“She said, ‘Oh, my God, thank God, I just Googled you before, because I knew you were going to come here in a few minutes and I wanted to quickly read about you. And the first thing that came up was your obituary.'”

The source told the LA journalist she had been on the phone to her workplace to find out if the interview had been cancelled due to Vankin’s “death”.

“So that’s happened twice,” Vankin said.

Unlike most people, the reporter was able to go public about her experience in a bid to dispel some of the false reports online.

Others are not so lucky and have had to take their fight to court.

In 2019, a woman sued Canadian website Afterlife as part of a class action alleging it published an obituary and photograph of her father without her permission.

After drawing in users to its site, it sought to capitalise on people’s grief by selling memorial-themed products like candles and sympathy cards to unsuspecting loved ones.

Afterlife’s conduct was described by a judge as “high-handed” and “reprehensible”, according to news outlet CBC, and the website was ordered to pay $22 million in damages.

What do you do if you find an obit with misinformation

Policing the internet can feel as complex and treacherous as navigating the high seas. And just like in open water, pirates lurk everywhere.

For those who find articles with misinformation about them online, it is possible to take action.

“You can reach out to different companies and different platforms that are hosting the information and ask for [it] to be taken down,” Professor Given said.

But while it is important for individuals to invest in life-jackets – in the form of sophisticated passwords and not trusting everything they read online – it is also up to companies like Google to intervene.

Google apps such as Gmail, Drive, Play Store, Maps, and Chrome are being displayed on a smartphone with Google Alphabet visible in the background, in this photo illustration taken in Brussels, Belgium, on December 28, 2023. (Photo Illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto) (Photo by Jonathan Raa / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

Recent updates to the company’s policies means some obit pirates have been plucked from their rickety ships and tossed overboard.

The search engine, which says it has policies and automated systems to fight against spammers, recently announced a series of updates to its spam policies to keep the lowest-quality content out of search.

It pointed to expired websites repurposed as spam by new owners and obituary spam as covered by an updated scaled content abuse policy.

They fall under this category because “they are produced at scale with the primary intent of gaming Search ranking, and offer little value to users”, a spokesperson told the ABC.

They also said the recent updates to the site’s Search spam policies have “significantly reduced the presence of obituary spam in search results”.

On YouTube, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, the company fights this content by “rigorously enforcing our spam, deceptive practices, and scams policies”.

It might be good news for victims of obituary piracy, but cyber experts warn scammers are not going away.

“People that make money through these kinds of disinformation campaigns know that there’s value there,” Professor Given said.

“They’re going to find different ways to work around the system. So even if it’s over piracy today, it might be something else tomorrow.”

– This story was first published by the ABC

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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