TODAY   |  June 13, 2013

Rossen Reports: Burglars target homes using obituaries

In a trend so heartless it has stunned veteran detectives, thieves are poring through obituaries, picking out the homes of grieving relatives to target while the family members are at funerals. NBC’s Jeff Rossen investigates.

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>>> we're back now at 7:42. a new warning from police about a crime that is so despicable, even veteran detectives are stunned. this will make you shake your head. thieves are using funerals to rob families. today national "today" correspondent jeff rossen is shaking his head. jeff, good morning.

>> how low can you go? it doesn't get much lower than this. bands of thieves now targeting families at their most vulnerable. here's how it works. when you lose a loved one, you post an obituary in the newspaper, 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.

>> this is hard.

>> reporter: it happened to cindy and dennis higden. their son christian was tragically killed, but while they were at his funeral laying him to rest, thieves were ransacking their kentucky home . you get to the front door, and what do you see?

>> everything in the house totally torn apart, thrown everywhere, broken. it's like you have already felt like you're at the lowest point you could be, and i literally -- it's like i just fell to the ground.

>> reporter: police say the thieves found this family through this obituary in the local newspaper , listing their full names, their hometown, and the date and time of the funeral. investigators say these 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.

>> reporter: you thought you were at the lowest?

>> yes, but we found out there's still a long way to go.

>> reporter: and police say it gets even more extreme. near seattle, ten homes burglarized while the families were at funerals. hundreds of thousands of dollars in possessions stolen.

>> it's heinous. it's reprehensible.

>> reporter: margaret ludwig is lead investigator and busted these three, now in prison. they wereunning an obituary crime ring so sophisticated and organized, even seasoned investigators were stunned.

>> they had their computers set up to where they would receive e-mail notifications of the new obituaries that were coming into the local paper.

>> reporter: this was a serious operation?

>> yes, a lot of thinking went into how they were going to pull this off.

>> reporter: for the victims who have already lost so much, it is the ultimate invasion.

>> it's like, please, have a heart. i mean, think about the people you're doing this to. what they're already going through.

>> that family wanted to share their story to help you at home. in fact, they're so traumatized by what happened, they're actually planning to move out of their house. police say we can all learn from this, and there are ways to protect yourself. so here's the takeaway. if you lose a loved one and you write an obituary, don't print your full name or hometown. that just makes it easy for the criminals to find you. if you can, have a friend or a neighbor stay at your house during the funeral just to keep an eye on things. and if that's not possible, park a few cars in the driveway to make it look like someone is home. obviously, this is the last thing you want to think about when you're grieving, but, matt, as we have seen, these krim l criminals will stoop to any level to get money.

>> what's the expression? there's a special place in hell reserved for people like this. jeff rossen , thank you very much.