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I found myself in a peculiar situation yesterday. I was contacted via Facebook by a person (let's call him Bob) who claimed that he was one of my mom's cousins and hadn't talked to her in over 40 years. He asked that I try to confirm that we were in fact related, and put him in touch with my mom. Normally, I'd be suspicious about this, but a few things made me consider what he was saying:

  • "Bob" knew my mom's maiden name, which she still uses (but is different than my own). The last name he gave is the same as hers, and it's not a common one. It's also not easily available information.
  • He knew some things about family history that a non-family member wouldn't know.
  • My mom does actually have some cousins she hasn't talked to for over 40 years (and then only briefly), including one with "Bob"'s name. They still live in the country her family's from, though, and they have no easy way of contacting each other.
  • He didn't ask for her email or any sort of contact information; he just asked if my mom and I could confirm that we're related.

The point is, it doesn't seem like this is a scam - partly because what he says fits with family history, and partly because we can't see what exactly a scammer could get out of all this.

We want to ask "Bob" for some more familial information or something like it - just to try to see if he's actually the "Bob" we're related to. However, we really don't want to be rude about it. I need to phrase things delicately enough so that he understands that we want to confirm things, without offending him.

Things are also a little complicated because "Bob" is from the United Kingdom, and we're from the United States. The cultures are pretty similar, but there are still differences when it comes to politeness.

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    You are mistaken about what is easily available information. Last time I checked, genealogy was the third most popular hobby in USA, and a large portion of the hobbyists have no understand of and/or concern for privacy. And a few commercial (and one non-commercial) large databases are only interested in privacy to the extent that they don't get sued or bad publicity. And if it can't be found on ancestry.com or familysearch.org or one of the others, it can probably be purchased cheap from dozens of online sources. – WGroleau Nov 22 '17 at 19:22
  • @WGroleau The anecdotes from family history are what makes it all seem convincing; there's absolutely no way that could be found in databases. – HDE 226868 Nov 27 '17 at 1:34
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What a coincidence! Last week, I got a phone call. It was from someone claiming to be a cousin (living in another country) that I hadn't spoken to in 48 years. He was driving down to Washington and he wanted to get together for lunch. Since he remembered specific examples of our activities, it wasn't hard at all to believe him. We had lunch, and had a wonderful time reminiscing. I think I'll try to get up to where he lives next year.

A couple of decades ago, my father was contacted by a person claiming to be his dead older brother's illegitimate son from an affair, and he wanted to meet his extended family. My father was a very suspicious guy, and was convinced that the guy was going to try to bilk them out of money. But, talking with his brothers and sisters, they decided to throw the guy a party. The guy flew from halfway across the US to come, and it was a great party, and the guy was the spitting image of my dead uncle, and knew things (like his father's war stories) that only a family member would know. The person was very grateful to be accepted into the family and kept up with his aunts, uncles, and some cousins for many years. And he never tried to sell them anything or asked for money.

I guess my point is, what's the harm in believing him? Sit back and enjoy. If he talks long enough, you'll get proof; the longer it takes, the more suspicious you can be. But treat him kindly and like you're happy to hear from him (if you are) and sooner or later, you'll know if you all are related or not.

Just don't give him the last 4 digits of your mother's Social Security Number.*

*Or any other sensitive information that an identity thief might want. 

  • 10
    "what's the harm in believing him?" The answer is identity theft. – Wilbert Sep 6 '17 at 10:32
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    @Wilbert: Well from the informations given in OP I would say its either an very inefficient way to approach a broad target group, or if it is targeting specifically him, the thief has already a lot of informations usable for stealing the identity. – dhein Sep 6 '17 at 11:21
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I was contacted many years ago (via email) by somebody in the US who asked if I was related to so-and-so, who is my father. We have an unusual last name, which this person does not share. He identified himself as Aunt so-and-so's son. I remembered Aunt so-and-so from childhood but didn't know her last name.

He said he was doing a genealogy project and was looking for contact information. I confirmed that the person he was looking for is my father but gave out no other personal information (yet). He asked for contact information, and I said I'd pass his along. I recommend this practice in any case where the person being sought doesn't already have published contact information, by the way; if somebody has chosen not to plaster his email address all over the net, or has chosen to have an unlisted phone number, then if I give it out I'm violating his privacy. Instead, you can preserve the recipient's privacy while still making the contact.

I passed his email along and my father -- who knew more about the relevant family members than I did anyway -- wrote back with pleasantries, general information about our family that isn't hard to find, and questions like "how's cousin Ted?" and "is Joe still working at, er, what's the name of that drug-research company he was at?". No "grilling" occurred, nor did anybody particularly suspiciously, but by sharing some information with gaps and by asking broad questions about other people they both should know, each participant could learn enough to conclude that the other was the right person.

They concluded that they were in fact relatives who hadn't talked in decades, and they're in more regular contact now.

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Genealogy is your friend!

If Bob is indeed your Mom's long lost cousin, you should be able to figure out the chain of relationships that makes that so. So you could say "Bob, I'm trying to figure out how you are related so we can update our family tree - can you tell me the names of your parents, and do you remember how are they related to my mom's parents? - etc" - and then start to build up a family tree that way. You should also be able to fill in details of Bob's brothers and sisters, and that could be confirmed with your mother or with public records.

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You mentioned that "Bob" contacted you on Facebook, does he have a public profile? Can you cross reference Bob's info on other social media platforms?

Just thinking that simply skimming over his posts, photos, friends, and maybe even friends of friends could give you a brief picture of who this person is.

Also asking him how he found you on social media, may be revealing. Do you have any mutual friends? Did he go looking for you? If he went looking for you, how did he know it was you?

Another fairly simple approach would be to engage in polite conversation with Bob and ask about mutual family members that you are more certain about. As in:

Hey it's been a long time, have you heard from cousin Alice, or aunt Jane?

It doesn't sound like a scam thus far, but I suppose anything is possible. If it is a scam he'll likely get to it pretty quickly, asking for info that a cousin wouldn't necessarily need or want.

  • This is a good point. I did do some searches for Bob, but they haven't (so far) turned up much (aside from some comments on a forum related to his job). It doesn't appear that his profile is public, though (unfortunately). – HDE 226868 Sep 5 '17 at 17:25
  • @HDE226868 still worth asking about how he found you. – apaul Sep 5 '17 at 17:27
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    Oh, yeah, definitely. I was just commenting on the first bit. – HDE 226868 Sep 5 '17 at 17:28
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He asked that I try to confirm that we were in fact related, and put him in touch with my mom.
...
We want to ask "Bob" for some more familial information or something like it - just to try to see if he's actually the "Bob" we're related to. However, we really don't want to be rude about it. I need to phrase things delicately enough so that he understands that we want to confirm things, without offending him.

I'm not sure I see what the problem is. He asked you to try to confirm that you're related: if you reply with some questions specifically intended to do that, he has no reason to be offended. In fact, his request gives you the perfect excuse to ask those questions.

Given that you say he's from the UK, it's worth knowing that the British place a high cultural value on having a sense of humour. (See inter al. the book Watching the English by Kate Fox, although I think this is shared with the other nations of the UK). So you could preface your response with a disarming joke. Perhaps something like:

It's probably a bit soon to ask for a DNA test to definitely confirm that we're related, but it seems possible. Could you share the genealogical research you've done on that branch of the family to see whether it triggers any memories?

Then maybe share something vague which you think he should be able to complete, as described in Monica's answer.

You could also ask for photos to see whether you can spot any resemblance. I have some believed distant cousins with whom my mother has shared genealogical information, but without being able to establish a definite connection. However, when her father met one of them he was struck by the resemblance to one of his aunts.

FWIW, I would also echo Monica's point about passing contact information from the person requesting contact to the other party and not the other way round.

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