I believe there is a scam going around, as readers have deduced, but there are
also cases where similar emails, phone calls, or letters are legitimate. I have
two examples of the latter.
The first case is instructive because it shows why people may be suspicious of
*our* letters and phone calls. My great grandfather's brother (I'll call him
Saul) in NYC remarried early in the last century after his wife died, and had
more children with the new wife. The children >from the two marriages were never
close because they differed in age greatly and they drifted apart. I finally
found a descendent of that second marriage (I'll call him Tom) and he told me
the following story. When a son of Saul died in the 1980s without a will, it was
incumbent on the executor to find all potential heirs who could stand to
inherit some of the estate (i.e., to exercise due diligence in searching). The
executor, himself an heir, did not track down the descendents >from the second
marriage. One day, Tom's mother called him and said a lawyer had contacted her
to say that she could inherit some money >from a distant relative and if she
agreed to give him 1/3 he'd arrange it. No money was asked for up front. It
sounded fishy. Then Tom remembered he'd met a genealogist at the National
Archives a few years earlier and that women had been very nice in helping Tom,
who was a complete beginner. She had given him her business card. So Tom called
her to ask if it made sense that there could be a distant relative who died
intestate and that his mother could be entitled to a share of the estate. It
turns out - small world - that the genealogist had been the one to do the
research for the lawyer. This lawyer would regularly comb the newspapers for
notices of people dying intestate and, if the estate was large enough, he'd
have the genealogist look for heirs. In this case, Tom's mother was happy to
share the inheritance with the lawyer because if it hadn't been for the lawyer
she'd have gotten nothing. (Note: I am not passing judgement on what happened,
just reporting what I heard.
My other example concerns a scientist in Italy whose hobby is Jewish history. He
contacted me because he saw an article I had written in a genealogy magazine
about cousins that were deported to Auschwitz >from Italy. He told me he knew
what happened to my cousins. I was extremely agitated by this and suspected the
worst. But, it turns out he had stumbled across a collection of letters
retrieved >from a dentention camp in Italy and those letters were written to my
cousin. It's been an awesome experience to receive those letters.
So, yes, I think we should all exercise caution with unsolicited communications.
There are creeps out there. But, there are also some nice people who might have
amazing things to tell you.