Why do criminals take fraudulent death claims overseas? Because they know U.S. agencies abroad don’t verify death-related claims and paperwork. In the U.S., death certificates, medical, and other official documentation are strictly monitored and authenticated making it more difficult to push a false claim through to payout. However, take that same false claim to a U.S. embassy or consulate and the game changes.
Here’s a look at the reason why fraudsters may go overseas to commit their fraud and how to safeguard against it.
The ins and outs of foreign death reporting
The official document accompanying nearly every overseas death claim is a Report of Death of a U.S. Citizen Abroad (“RDCA”) form. Ostensibly, it’s supposed to prove that the person named on the form has indeed died. But is it a valid proof of death? The answer: no.
The next logical question: Why have the form if it isn’t a reliable, official document? This is where things get complicated. To answer this question, you have to look at the motives, mission, and resources of embassies and consular offices.
Embassies and consular offices exist primarily to promote economic growth, provide security, and help citizens residing or traveling abroad. They are efficient and adept at detecting fraud related to passports and visas as these are well within the scope of their regular duties and it ties back to their primary mission. However, other types of fraud (specifically life insurance fraud) are not inherent to their mandate. This puts death verification low on their proverbial totem pole and leaves the door wide open for fraudsters working this scheme. Case in point, many embassies only require a family member of the deceased to present a reasonable case that their loved-one has died. That’s it.
Personal finances are also outside an embassy’s purview as are life insurance and medical policies. They don’t have the time or interest in ensuring these claims are accurate and true. We’ve had consulate offices tell us directly that they do not validate information associated with death claims. Eye-opening as this is, it makes sense. Their mission is to promote trade, provide security, and help U.S. citizen’s. Authenticating death information does not support any of these primary concerns.
Verifying death information also requires time, resources and skillsets embassies and consular offices often don’t have. Detecting false death claims requires years of experience, specialized knowledge, and a keen “gut” sense - assets not usually on-hand in the embassy landscape. Why? Because they don’t support their mission. Using an embassy to validate a death claim is equivalent to using missionaries as qualified investigators. One is a motive of compassion; the other a motive of fact-finding.
Back to the RDCA.
According to the U.S. Department of State’s website Travel.State.Gov, a U.S. Embassy or consulate issues a RDCA upon receipt of a finding-of-death. The document is generally used in legal proceedings in the United States as proof of death. According to the State Department’s website, the Consular is responsible for:
- Confirming the death, identity, and U.S. citizenship of the deceased.
- Attempting to locate and notify the next-of-kin.
- Coordinating with the legal representative regarding the disposition of the remains and the personal effects of the deceased
- Providing guidance on forwarding funds to cover costs
- Serving as provisional conservator of the estate if there is no legal representative in the country.
- Preparing documents for the disposition of the remains in accordance with instructions from the next-of-kin or legal representative.
- Overseeing the performance of the disposition of the remains and the distribution of the effects of the deceased.
- Sending signed copies of the Consular Report of Death of an U.S. Citizen Abroad to the next-of-kin or legal representative for possible use in settling estate matters in the United States.
So, if the consular office completes these duties, why can’t the RDCA be used as proof of death? What’s its purpose and/or value? Why is it still used?
It can’t be used as an official proof of death because nearly every fraudulent foreign death claim has a RDCA associated with it. This has negated the form’s credibility. However, it’s still used because it does hold valuable information, such as the reporting person’s identity, the purported location and cause of death, the time of death, the deceased’s age, sex, race, and U.S. location. Investigators can use the RDCA to validate the claim or discover a fraudulent trail.
The takeaway is to view these forms skeptically. Corroborate its information with other sources. If need be, call in investigators. They shouldn’t be taken at face value. Here’s a case in point.
Case Study: A lesson in verifying all documents
Recently, we were retained to confirm a foreign death claim that purportedly occurred in Eastern Europe. The insurer received a RDCA along with several copies of original death documents from the country of death. It was noted that insured had pending criminal charges in the U.S giving at least one motive to appear dead.
The RDCA had relevant information important to the confirmation of death including:
- the insured’s address abroad,
- the name and address of the person the insured was traveling with,
- the location of the reported death,
- the in-country medical death certificate registration number and issuing party (forensics), and
- the in-country civil death certificate registration number and issuing party.
U.S. authorities took the RDCA at face-value and closed the insured’s criminal proceedings due to the purported death. An article related to the charges was updated through local news source to report the insured had died and that the prosecution, as such, was no longer being pursued.
Case closed, right? Wrong.
Our investigation evaluated the documents and visited the reported addresses as well as other addresses associated with the insured and their traveling companion. The office issuing the civil death certificate confirmed it was authentic and issued by their office. It also confirmed that the basis for issuing the death certificate was a medical death certificate provided by the “forensics” department, which is equivalent to a Medical Examiner’s office.
Even with a validated death certificate, we contacted the named forensics department. This is where things became interesting.
The forensics department was confused. They didn’t know the insured and knew nothing about the issued medical death certificate. This type of document is generated after an autopsy is performed and toxicology results establish a cause of death. It takes time, meaning there is a difference in the reported death date and the issue date on the medical death certificate. However, the civil death certificate and RDCA were issued on the same day as the purported death. The timeline didn’t match up. The forensic officials consulted their records, confirming that the medical examiner who signed off on the death ceased working in their office two years before the reported death.
This case highlights the cascading effect of one false document. The crooks concocted a false medical death certificate. This was used to obtain an authentic civil death certificate, which in turn was used to get an official RDCA. If left alone, this case would have resulted in a significant payout to clever crooks. Instead, we saved the insurance company’s money.
Experiencing a true death on foreign soil is traumatic. It’s understandable that the deceased’s representatives will be confused by and/or ignorant of the official paperwork. However, you and your team need to be aware of the pitfalls to the documents that generally accompany a foreign death claim; verify everything. A RDCA should not be used conclusively as proof of death. The form indicates the issuing embassy attests that the death has been reported to them. That’s all.
We highly recommend using experienced investigators – like ours – to ensure these claims are real. We know the culture, customs, practices, and processes of the countries where the work is conducted. This is crucial to determining whether a valid death exists and whether your insurance payout is safe.
Do you have an interesting RDCA story? Need help verifying a foreign death? Contact us! Our network of international investigators are passionate about confirming truth and preventing fraud.
Written by Kevin Glasgow and Erick Soeth. Learn more about their experience and roles at Diligence here.