Scams in genealogy are as old as the hobby itself. Many of the time honored ones (which I’ll cover in a minute) have moved from junk mail and classified ads to online. Others are brand new, taking advantage of the fact that on the Internet, no one knows if you’re a skunk. Here are a few of the more common ones.
The complete family history of [your surname here]! These scammers have been operating by regular mail, classified ads and online all my lifetime. For an exorbitant amount of money, you get a hard-bound book that is a mass-produced, glorified phone directory of randomly selected names, accompanied by a brief generic history unrelated to your actual family. This particular scam was run by Halberts of Ohio for years, by bulk surface and email, until they finally were run out of business by widespread reports of what they were really selling. However, it may reappear at any time; be forewarned.
A closely related scam promised you various junk with “your family crest” or “[Your Surname] coat of arms” and a “history of your family name.” Unless your genealogy can prove you are related to a family enrolled by the College of Arms, you don’t have a family coat of arms. The history of a given surname is often available for free on the Internet; don’t pay for it.
“Guides” and “programs” that only point you to free sites. Some software products and online services claim to be genealogical gold mines, but they really only point you to readily available phone books, compiled surnames and GEDCOMs.
In most cases this information available for free, but the scammer charges you for simply pointing you toward Cyndi’s List, RootsWeb, and Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. Or worse, simply to the many different white pages available online.
The old phony inheritance ploy. This scam is designed to separate alleged rightful heirs from their money by charging them fees for “processing”. In fact a surface mail version of this was popular with scammers in the last century. The victim is informed that unclaimed inheritance connected to his family must be settled, and details on how to claim the inheritance will be sent to him—after paying for various service fees to the informer to handle the lost estate, which never existed to begin with.
A modern variation is the foreign widow who wants help transferring her money to the U.S. Any time you are asked to send personal and financial information, delete it. Check out this page: http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/scams/scams.asp#inherit for more on these scams.
Falsified credentials as professional genealogists. Genealogists are unregulated and do not require an official license in any state. Anyone can legally claim to be one. Genealogical data is easy to fake, and con artists have taken advantage of this. However, certain bodies do issue legitimate credentials to persons who have passed education and skills tests. If you want to hire a professional, look for certification from a third party such as the Association of Professional Genealogists, The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists, and the Board for the Certification of Genealogists.