Charlatans and Thieves Steal the Fun from Genealogy

by Bob Brooke

The study of genealogy has been plagued with those who are unwilling to require accuracy in their research. Many have accepted improper or unproven links with a person of noble birth as fact. Thus charlatans and thieves have practiced successful schemes to bilk the gullible public.

A scheme that has met with success and profit has been the "missing heir" racket. Although this scheme is probably less commonly practiced today than 50 years ago, it still victimizes many. Persons purporting to represent interests in an inheritance have claimed that the inheritance has been tied up for some time due to lack of contact with missing heirs. They entice people, even of modest means, to employ them to seek the legacy. They take the person on many so-called research visits and overseas conferences, supposedly designed to establish the person's right to the inheritance. After the person's funds are depleted, the case is declared hopeless and the person is left financially drained.

Another form of profit making which is often dubious is the practice of some companies to offer a report or a booklet to the public of the lineage of a particular family. The report is a mere compilation of surnamne extracts from censuses, county histories, compendia, and random sources. Such a compilation is of little value, and hardly deserves its name. The buyer gets much less than he expected, but the advertising is carefully worded to prevent legal action.

Yet another misleading practice is to establish a business under the name of an organization that's similar to a well-known professional organization and to advertise professional services. The buyer gets less than he pays for, and the genuine professional organization is burdened with the task of taking any legal action necessary to force the business to change its name.

In recent years, organizations have sprung up in Washington and Utah which employ questionable schemes. Some of these offer to provide workshops for local genealogical and historical societies at no charge. Assuming that the offer emanates from a respectable organization, the local genealogical society doesn't suspect anything amiss and sometimes proceeds with the plans to have a workshop. The workshop turns out to be primarily a high-pressure sales campaign designed to sell expensive, over-priced literature. This information, usually reworded to circumvent the copyright laws, may already be readily available in genealogical manuals.

And then there's the perennial fake herald scheme. A letter saying that a company can produced the herald of the addressee for a certain price. Worded in such a way as to make anyone think it's authentic, some unsuspecting addressees are taken in and order it. Only families directly related to noble families in the Middle Ages are eligible to claim heraldry.

As with so many popular interests, there are unethical practitioners and unscrupulous enterprisers among the honest practitioners. The serious researcher interested in his or her proper family history should make every effort to avoid these traps.

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