5 Family History Scams to Avoid

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The Phony Inheritance Scam

Learn how to identify and avoid the most common family history scams, including the phony inheritance scam.
Jodi Jacobson / Getty Images

Unfortunately, even in the friendly field of family history the old adage "Buyer Beware" must hold true. While it's not a common occurrence, there are some people who while researching their family tree have found themselves the victim of a genealogy scam, defined by Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as "a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation." Of course the best defense against such hoaxes, scams and other deceptions is advance knowledge, so explore this list of well-known scams and hoaxes that all genealogy enthusiasts should be aware of. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, so do your research before sending anyone money for anything.

1. The Phony Inheritance Scam

This genealogy scam trips up would-be heirs by appealing to their interest in family history. A letter or email informs you that an unclaimed inheritance connected to your family has been located. After they reel you in with dreams of a far-off rich relative, they relieve you of your money in the form of various "fees" which are supposedly necessary to settle the estate—an estate which never existed to begin with. The infamous Baker Hoax is one such genealogy inheritance scam.

Phony inheritance scams have been around for a long time, propagated by letters or newspaper advertisements searching for the "rightful heirs" of huge estates. While many of us might question the supposed "fees," many people have been taken in by such scams over the years. Estate frauds touched hundreds of thousands of families, and you may even uncover references to such fortune or estate claims in your family tree.

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YOUR Family History Scam

Some of the family history books that are sold for a specific surname and generally full of useless information.
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Have you ever received a letter in the mail from a company who claims to have done extensive work around the world on the history of your surname? Perhaps they have produced a wonderful book on your family, something such as THE WORLD BOOK OF POWELLS' or POWELLS ACROSS AMERICA which traces the history of the Powell surname back to the 1500s? However these advertisements are worded, they all have one thing in common - they claim to be a 'one-of-a-kind' book and usually also claim to only be available for a limited time. Sound too good to be true? It is. These 'family surname history' books are little more than glorified phone books. Usually they will include some general information on tracing your family tree, a brief history of your surname (very generic and providing no insight on the history of your specific family) and a list of names taken from a variety of old phone directories. Real helpful, huh? Companies such as Halberts of Bath OH have been prosecuted and shut down for just such fraud, but there are always new ones to take their place.

Similar items to watch out for include family history and surname origin scrolls and plaques. These provide only a generic history or surname origin of some of the families that carry the surname in question, but nothing on your specific family. Basically, any company who suggests that a mass-produced item is part of a customer's individual family history is misrepresenting genealogy and family history and you should stay away.

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Genealogists with Falsified Credentials

Occasionally individuals try to pass themselves off as a professional by claiming credentials that they haven't earned.
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It is relatively easy for an amateur family historian to set up shop and charge money for tracing family trees. This is absolutely acceptable as long as the genealogist in question does not misrepresent their abilities or training. Just because a genealogist doesn't have professional certification doesn't mean they don't know what they are doing. Professional genealogists are not usually licensed by governments, but several professional genealogy organizations have instituted screening programs. However, there have unfortunately been cases where people have been easily misled by the inappropriate use of credentials and/or postnomials implying such testing or special qualifications. There have even been cases when so-called genealogists have "faked" genealogical data to produce family histories for their clients.

Before hiring a professional researcher, make sure that you do your research and know exactly what you are getting for your money. The names of professional genealogists, both certified and uncertified, can be obtained from professional associations, such as the Association of Professional Genealogists. See Selecting a Professional Genealogist for help with checking the qualifications of a potential researcher, making your needs known to them, things you should do to improve your results and understanding the costs involved.

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Misleading Software & Services

What are you getting for your genealogy dollars?
Getty / Andrew Unangst

There are a few genealogy software products and online services on the market which can be described as misleading with regard to what they actually provide. This isn't to say that they are fraudulent in the true sense of the word, but they are often charging you for something you could get on your own for free. Most of the worst have been put out of business by vigilant genealogists, but new ones do crop up from time to time.

Unfortunately, some of the biggest offenders are websites that pay for high placement in search results on Google and other sites. Many also appear as "sponsored links" on reputable websites that support Google advertising, including Ancestry.com and About.com. This makes it appear the fraudulent site is being endorsed by the website on which it appears, although that is generally not the case. Therefore, before you provide anyone with credit card details or payment, check out the site and its claims to see what you can learn. There are a number of things you can do to identify and protect yourself from online genealogy scams.

Some may argue that such genealogical software and services do offer value because they do some of the work for you -- which is fine as long as they accurately represent their product. Before you purchase any genealogy product or service, take time to research their claims and look for some type of money-back guarantee.

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Coat of Arms Confusion

Store in Dublin selling family crests and coats of arms.
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There are many companies out there who will sell you your coat of arms on a t-shirt, mug, or 'handsomely engraved' plaque. For my husband's surname, POWELL, there is an entire catalog full of such items! While these companies are not necessarily out to scam you, their sales pitch is very misleading and, in some cases, outright incorrect. Very few actually take the time to explain the facts to their potential customers - see Excuse Me, But There's No Such Thing as a Family Crest for one company which does.

Except for a few individual exceptions from some parts of Eastern Europe, there is no such thing as a "family" coat of arms for a particular surname—despite the claims and implications of some companies to the contrary. Coats of arms are granted to individuals, not families or surnames.