June 13, 2013 at 7:36 AM ET
A new warning from police about a trend so despicable, even veteran detectives are stunned: Thieves are now using funerals to rob families blind.
It doesn't get much lower than this: Bands of thieves are targeting families at their most vulnerable. Here's how it works: When you lose a loved one, you post an obituary in the paper, along with details of the funeral. The criminals know you won't be home, and that's when they strike... while you're at the cemetery.
They are well-planned attacks: Thieves poring through local obituaries, and picking out the homes of grieving relatives.
When you leave for the funeral, the thieves move in. And they are heartless.
It happened to Cindy and Dennis Higdon. Their son Christian was tragically killed. But while they were at his funeral laying him to rest, thieves were ransacking their Kentucky home.
"It's like, you already felt like you're at the lowest point you could be and ... it's like I just fell to the ground," Cindy Higdon said.
Police say the thieves found the family through an obituary in the local newspaper listing their full names, their hometown, and the date and time of the funeral. Investigators say two men, now charged, hit the house during the service, giving them hours to steal everything from expensive jewelry to computers to sentimental items from Christian's own room.
"They took everything away from us; they put us into another level of low that we didn't think could ever exist," Dennis Higdon said.
We said: "You thought you were at the lowest --"
"Yes. Yes. Till we found out there's still a long way to go."
And police say it gets even more extreme. Near Seattle: 10 homes burglarized while the families were at funerals. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in possessions stolen.
"It's heinous," said lead investigator Margaret Ludwig. "It's reprehensible."
Ludwig busted three crooks, now in prison. They were running an obituary crime ring so sophisticated and organized, even seasoned investigators were stunned.
"They had their computers set up to where they would receive email notifications of the new obituaries that were coming into the local paper," Ludwig told us. "Lots of planning, lots of preparation, a lot of thinking went into how they were going to pull this off."
For victims who've already lost so much, it's the ultimate invasion.
"It's like, please, have a heart," Cindy Higdon said. "I mean, think about the people you're doing this to, what they're already going through."
The family is so traumatized, they're planning to move out of the house. It just doesn't feel like home anymore. Police say we can all learn from this, and there are ways to protect yourself.
Here's the takeaway: If you have to write an obituary, don't print your full name or your hometown; that makes it easy for criminals to find you. If you can, have a friend or neighbor stay at your house during the funeral to keep an eye on things. And if that's not possible, park a few cars in your driveway to make it look like someone is home.
Obviously, losing a relative is hard enough, and it's a shame we even have to think about this. But as we've seen, the criminals will stoop to any level to steal from you.