People shopping for funeral or cremation services may be particularly vulnerable to overpaying or being swindled, which is why experts say it’s important to be cautious when making those decisions.
People generally don’t purchase such services frequently, so they are unfamiliar with the process, and they are typically bereaved and stressed, which can affect decision making, said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, an advocacy group. Plus, people tend to associate their love for the dead person with the amount of money they spend on the funeral.
“Grieving people really are the ‘perfect customer’ to upsell,” Mr. Slocum said.
The digital age has also made it easier to reach grieving customers. Just last month, the federal authorities charged that the operator of two online cremation brokerages had misled clients and even withheld remains to force bereaved families to pay inflated prices.
The Justice Department, on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission, sued Funeral & Cremation Group of North America; Legacy Cremation Services, which operates under several names; and the companies’ principal, Anthony Joseph Damiano.
The companies, according to a civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on April 22, market services through the websites Legacy Cremation Services and Heritage Cremation Provider.
The companies purport to be local funeral homes offering low-cost cremation services, and the websites use search engines that make it appear as though consumers are dealing with a nearby business, the complaint says. In reality, they act as middlemen, offering services and setting prices with customers, then arranging with unaffiliated funeral homes to perform cremations.
In “numerous instances,” the complaint says, the companies offered lower prices for cremation services than they ultimately required customers to pay, and arranged services at locations that were farther than advertised, forcing customers to travel “long distances” for viewings and to obtain remains.
“In some instances when consumers contest defendants’ charges,” the complaint said, the companies “threaten not to return or actually refuse to return” remains until customers pay up.
“Preying on consumers when they are dealing with the loss of a loved one is outrageous, and it’s illegal,” Samuel Levine, director of the F.T.C.’s bureau of consumer protection, said in a statement.
Mr. Damiano, who also goes by A.J., and his companies have run afoul of funeral regulators in several states. At least six — Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont — have taken action against Mr. Damiano or Legacy for failing to hold a valid license, the complaint said.
Christopher Farmer, general counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association, a trade group, said the association had received complaints about Legacy and Heritage from members and consumers.
“These guys have been around for a while,” he said. “We’re definitely glad the F.T.C. has chosen to take action on this.”
In 2019, the association warned members to avoid Heritage Cremation and related companies. “As in the past,” the association said, “N.F.D.A. members who receive calls to provide cremation services” from the companies “are advised to refuse those requests.”
The April lawsuit claims that Mr. Damiano and his companies violated the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits “unfair and deceptive conduct and false advertising,” and the agency’s Funeral Rule, which requires funeral homes to provide accurate pricing information when it is requested over the phone and an itemized list of charges after discussions about arrangements.
Mr. Damiano did not respond to telephone messages or to emails sent to his companies.
Americans have been choosing cremation more often than traditional burials. In 2020, the cremation rate in the United States reached 56 percent, up from about 55 percent in 2019, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
The typical cost of a traditional funeral with burial was $9,420 in 2021, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The typical cost of a funeral with cremation was $6,970. (So-called direct cremation, with minimal ceremony, can be much less expensive.)
Here are some questions and answers about cremation and funeral services:
How can I avoid being taken advantage of when choosing a cremation provider?
Mr. Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance recommends contacting several providers — in advance if possible, so you can consider the options without pressure. Ask for the location of the cremation center and request a visit.
Be aware, he said, that cremation sites in the United States are often not in the same location as the funeral home, and may not be designed for consumer tours. But if a provider refuses to offer even an address, he said, consider it a red flag: “That’s a deal breaker.”
There are “susceptible moments” when people are at higher risk of becoming a victim of fraud, a study by AARP found. Having a recent stressful life event — like the loss of a loved one — can increase that risk, said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs at AARP.
“If your life situation already has you ‘under the ether,’” she said, then “it’s a good day for the criminal or the dishonest salesperson.”
Must funeral and cremation providers post their prices online?
The F.T.C.’s Funeral Rule predates the internet and doesn’t require online price disclosure, nor do most states. The F.T.C. has been reviewing the rule for possible updates, including changes to make it more relevant for the digital age. Public comments on the rule closed in June 2020, but the agency has not announced further steps.
Are funeral benefits for Covid-related deaths still available?
Yes. As part of the government’s pandemic relief effort, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying up to $9,000 in funeral expenses per Covid-related death for those that occurred after Jan. 20, 2020. As of early May, the agency says, it has paid $2.3 billion toward the funerals of more than 369,000 people who died from Covid-19. Applicants can call 844-684-6333. There is no application fee.
Last year, the government issued a warning about fraud related to the funeral benefits, noting that FEMA had reports of people receiving calls from strangers offering to help them “register” for benefits. “It’s unfortunate but you have to be on your guard,” Ms. Stokes said.
FEMA won’t contact anyone until the person has called and applied for help, the warning said: “Anyone who contacts you out of the blue and claims to be a federal employee or from FEMA is a scammer.” Don’t give personal information about yourself or the deceased person to unknown callers, the agency advised. You can file complaints at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.