The Rise of Obituary Spam
February 12, 2024 6:24 AM   Subscribe

AI generated obituaries turn real people into clickbait. Searching for information on a deceased friend? Better check your sources carefully; there’s a whole shady online industry designed to profit off your loss.
posted by mygothlaundry (23 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Late-stage capitalism: maybe we were too hasty in dismissing graverobbing as a revenue generator
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:51 AM on February 12 [25 favorites]

I read a version of this in the NYTimes - I've experienced this before, though thankfully in my case there were no weird factual inaccuracies (at least nothing significant), just a lot of really badly written/uninformative obits.

I don't know if this article mentions this (I quickly skimmed but could have missed it), but in the NYTimes it was reported that the people doing this don't even make much money as online scams go. It's only the extreme global inequality we've all been participating in (i.e the fact that a few cents in USD worth something in another) that makes this a logical activity for some folks.
posted by coffeecat at 7:09 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]

giving up, writing a script to automate sending a bouquet of flowers and a "sorry for your loss" card to random addresses three times a week
posted by phooky at 7:28 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

Well, and... one of the great things about spam is that it costs almost nothing to send, so if you only get one nibble per million it's still worth doing. Now Generative AI's ability to create garbage for pennies (and a little ecological devastation) is opening entirely new vistas of nuisance and confusion, which we will have to burn even more resources to combat. What a brave new world.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:30 AM on February 12 [14 favorites]

Here’s a recent NYT article, and an older Wired one.
posted by box at 7:36 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

On this depressing yet increasingly familiar note, here's Film Crit Hulk: The internet is an empty labyrinth.
posted by rory at 7:47 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]

I had a parent pass away a few years ago. We didn't run into this scam, thankfully, but we did get a long series of scammy/predatory junk mail and calls, including companies that offer to give you a portion of your inheritance immediately instead of waiting for an estate to settle. Other people have had to deal with predatory "we want to buy your mom's house for pennies on the dollar" people for months and months. So I'm not surprised that yet another aspect of death brings out the scammers.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:05 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]

"Just because we're bereaved doesn't make us saps!" - Walter Sobchak
posted by credulous at 8:08 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]

My mom died 2 years ago, she still gets a monthly postcard reminder from an audiologist that "it's time to get new batteries." She had never seen this guy, and didn't wear hearing aids.

As well as three notices from New York DMV that she has to come in and do a vision test, otherwise they'll suspend her license.
posted by Marky at 8:14 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

I suppose it's good that people know this is happening but it's also heartbreaking. My cousins lost their dad, my uncle, a few years ago. He was really well known in their community, from serving on the boards of several prominent charities and nonprofits. After his obit ran, skeezy businesses hit them up like crazy, and scammers tried to use his name in fundraisers. His wife (my aunt) just died in November. The family decided to have no obituary published at all. And even though she was almost as well known as her husband, only a handful of people came to her funeral. Because only her immediate family and closest friends knew. Maybe that's best, I don't know. But it was also sad.
posted by martin q blank at 8:39 AM on February 12 [9 favorites]

I've experienced this before, though thankfully in my case there were no weird factual inaccuracies (at least nothing significant),

Well, if the article said you were dead, that’s a pretty major inaccuracy, at least based on the evidence available to me,
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:18 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

A week ago Saturday I learned via Facebook that a friend had passed away via various condolences messages on his page. Via google, I found a dozen different obituaries for him, all from the past few days and obviously written by AI. They sounded "obituary-esque" but with clear inaccuracies and weirdly effusive details like the "the city of Boston mourns the tragic death". Some of them coalesced around the detail that he was killed in a car accident at a specific place and time. Details of that accident were corroborated by more reputable news sources. Some had details on the where and when of the memorial service.

On the following Monday, the family put out a statement that he had indeed passed away, but that none of the obituaries were right: wrong date, it was not a car accident, no plans had been made yet regarding the service, etc.

The family might have felt pressured to get an announcement out quickly as some people were re-posting incorrect information and they didn't want a bunch of people showing up to an imaginary funeral.

It is obviously really shitty that they have to deal with combating an AI misinformation campaign now.
posted by justkevin at 10:05 AM on February 12 [14 favorites]

Via google, I found a dozen different obituaries for him, all from the past few days and obviously written by AI.

I just ran into this when a friend died a month ago. It's as if the spam sites take three or four plain assertions and expand them into an entire page of purple prose. If the dead person liked to garden, the spam site says that they are "mourned throughout the horticultural community." and "As we navigate the waves of grief, we find solace in celebrating the legacy that [person] leaves behind. " and so on.
posted by pracowity at 11:02 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]

This reinforces my thesis that the Internet sucks now because Google sucks out all the money before it gets to the people creating the content, so only the scummiest ways of sucking up the last few drops of money are left for content creators to live on.

Google thinks that it will be able to fix this problem by getting ever better at identifying the good content and rejecting the bad content, but its deeper problem is that it has starved all the good content.
posted by clawsoon at 11:33 AM on February 12 [17 favorites]

Meanwhile I see the profiles of deceased friends and colleagues come up in social media searches with no indication that they're dead. I don't see much incentive for LinkedIn to cull or memorialize nodes in its network of contacts, any more than a dating site would rush to relinquish old meatmarket mugshots. Both generate activity in their datafarm.

So think twice before you scorn someone for seemingly ignoring your direct messages. And dread the day you unknowingly checkbox the option to perpetually authorize some sort of bot-penned animatronic away message....
posted by in_lieu_of_fiction at 11:55 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]

A neighbor died a couple of months ago and I started getting spam from his email account with subject lines like “Sad News about [Neighbor’s Name]”, with suspicious attachments. I never did find an obituary for him, so it’s a little mysterious to me how this worked and how it fits into this ecosystem of ghoulishness. Anyone else seen this?
posted by eirias at 12:34 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]

Eiras, I've seen something similar show up on facebook; we recently had to have a bit of an "intervention" with an uncle who didn't know his Facebook was posting all these vaguebooking "it's so sad this person died" posts where you clicked on a mystery meat link.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:55 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

A gruesome variant on this is when rando churches get hold of the information and start sending you condolence notes that are, let us say, aggressively Christian in tone. But at least those are generally handwritten. I guess if I had to choose I'd rather that my immediate family got proselytizing notes after my death than that they had to try to deal with false information about it/the memorial service in the immediate aftermath.
posted by praemunire at 1:59 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]

AI obituaries you say? Don’t mind if I do!

In Memoriam: Sporgle Smith

On a day that will be remembered with as much fondness as a root canal, we bid a not-so-tearful farewell to Sporgle Smith, whose departure from this mortal coil was greeted with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for tax refunds and long-overdue vacations. Born at an undetermined date—since even time itself seemed reluctant to acknowledge him—Sporgle led a life that was as joyless and unremarkable as his name suggests.

Sporgle, a man whose personality could curdle milk, made no friends but an impressive collection of enemies and exasperated acquaintances. His vengeful spirit was matched only by his spitefulness and a small-mindedness so profound it could be considered groundbreaking if it weren't so tragically petty.

He approached life with the warmth and charm of a loan shark, ensuring that any encounters with him were as pleasant as sandpaper on bare skin. To say Sporgle loved no one is to understate the profound depth of his emotional void. Indeed, he traversed the entirety of his life without forming a single meaningful connection, unless you count the grudges he nurtured with the care most reserve for firstborn children.

Sporgle's passing has been met with a wave of relief that has swept through the community like a breath of fresh air—literally, as many feel they can finally breathe easier with him gone. He leaves behind no family, a testament to his lifelong commitment to misanthropy and a love life that was both a tragedy and a comedy, but mostly a public service announcement for the virtues of celibacy.

His legacy, such as it is, will be remembered in hushed whispers of warning and the occasional burst of laughter as people recall the man who could sour a sweet shop with his presence alone. Sporgle Smith, may you find in death the peace that eluded you in life, and may the earth rest lightly upon you, if only out of spite.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Society for the Prevention of Sporgle Smiths, a newly formed charity dedicated to ensuring that the world never suffers the likes of him again. Fare thee well, Sporgle, and may your memory serve as a cautionary tale for generations to come.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:39 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]

A close family member died suddenly some months back. No obituary was run. We kept quiet about it to all but the closest family and friends, due to a bad family dispute that had caused a lot of damage (he was not at fault.) A week or so after, I ran a Google search on his name… and lo and behold, fake obituaries for him came up. It’s ridiculous.
posted by azpenguin at 7:40 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]

OK - now I have to go Google my recently deceased aunt and uncle (sister and brother)
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 8:48 PM on February 12

I had no idea this was such a widespread problem already. This happened to a colleague of mine last year, but we figured it was because she had a decent online following and was a "microinfluencer" so AI bots would be more likely to scrape her data for various purposes.

In her case all it lead to was a few very awkward posts explaining the issue, and a friend making her a "certified living ghost" pin.

The idea that this is something happening to average people with minimal online presence... it baffles the mind.
posted by Pemberly at 9:36 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

My friend's dad was killed in traffic accident last year. When I heard about it, I looked for info online, and found a local "legal" resource site had posted an article about wrongful death lawsuits, citing the dad's accident. Dad's family had had a consultation with an attorney, and then that article appeared a couple of days after, mostly consisting of AI-generated, hand-wavey legalese about how the family could sue, with a few basic facts about the accident plugged in near the top. Seemed pretty fishy to me.
posted by abraxasaxarba at 1:12 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

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