About 12 months ago, I received a letter ostensibly from a company carrying out genealogical research for law firms. It said that they were dealing with the estate of someone who had left money to my late mother, who died about 20 years ago. They wanted me to authorise them to take action to transfer the bequest to me, while taking a percentage of the sum as commission. The letter did not state the size of the bequest, but noted that it would depend on their success or failure in processing other claims on the same estate.
The letter was accompanied with a professional-looking multi-page brochure, and the company had an extensive professional-looking website.
My thought was that, at the best this was a mix-up of names, but since the company was not asking for any personal or financial information about me or my late mother that they had not already stated in the letter, except for confirmation of my date and place of birth, I decided to go along with it and authorised them to proceed.
I heard nothing until a few days ago, when a letter arrived ostensibly from a different firm of solicitors, stating they were dealing with the person's estate (she had died without making a will), had used the genealogy research company to trace a more than 100 relatives of the deceased who were beneficiaries of the estate, and enclosing a cheque for my share of the total. Given the large number of claimants, I was a little surprised by the size of the cheque - close to a 5-figure sum.
This firm of solicitors also looks legitimate - they have a website, a high street address in the area where my mother used to live, etc. The cheque is apparently drawn from the company's named account with major UK bank, not an anonymous money transfer company.
The name and date of death appears genuine - a Google search found a report of her death (she was living in a care home, aged over 90) in the obituary column of a local newspaper.
All that seems fine, but there are a few "red flags" lurking in my mind:
The first letter contained absolutely no information about the deceased person, except her name, which was a very common one (Mary Smith) - probably the sort of name one would choose, if setting up a scam?
The story has changed from "someone left money to your mother, who is dead, and we want to pass it on to you" in the first letter, to "someone died without making a will, and you are one of their relatives" in the second.
The name itself did not "ring any bells" regarding friends of relatives of my mother who I knew of.
My mother had lived in this area for the whole of her life, and never mentioned any relatives she had lost touch with.
An email to the solicitor named in the second letter produced an immediate out-of-office reply, but no further response. I have not (yet) tried to contact them by other means - e.g. by phone or via their website.
Cash the cheque and celebrate my good luck, or call the police?
UPDATE 10 Nov 2018:
Curiouser and curiouser: Today I received a letter from someone in another part of the UK, headed "Dear Family" and purporting to explain the circumstances surrounding the end of Mary Smith's life.
To add to the mixed messages, it states that two of her relations have been "spent many months working hard" on the administration of the estate - no mention of the two legal firms who (ostensibly) sent the previous letters!
After a couple of pages of family history, the punchline is "we have decided to gift whatever sum we are entitled to, to [yet another private individual, who was involved in caring for her at the end of her life] and we invite you do to the same, by sending a personal cheque to [contact details] ...
Now that's the sort of scam I have heard about before!!