There is that old, somewhat romanticized image of the confidence man who comes to a town overcome with drought and convinces everyone to contribute money towards his proven scientific methods for making it rain. In some Hollywood fantasies it actually does rain in the end, but in reality these stories usually end with the con man sneaking out of town under the cover of night with a hat filled with the last few dollars left in the town.
A tragedy stalker is a person, or persons, who operate schemes and scams to profit in some way from people who have been impacted by a personal misfortune or community disaster. They work overtime when something like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina goes down, posing as charity workers, government agents, legal specialists, and any other type of cover they can use to convince victims of tragedy that they can help them out in their time of need. Their operation may be complex, but the end result is fairly simple. The goal is to make as much profit as possible by feeding on the the grief and insecurity of victims of bad fortune.
For some this is a way of life and they establish themselves as big time players, going after big paydays by preying on those who have received monetary settlements following tragic events. Building a personal relationship with a person who has recently lost a spouse or partner in order to profit financially or basically rob them blind is an old game. Such victims are often overwhelmed by grief and loneliness and this causes their thought processes to not be as critical and rational as they would be under normal circumstances. Someone who can fill a void can often build trust more easily and deceive with greater impunity.
The "professionals" at this sort of thing have been at it for years and have spent time perfecting their craft, gaining an understanding of the legal system, how to gather information and building a knowledge of basic psychology. In the modern era many have moved on to identity theft and other methods that require less personal interaction and therefore less risk. On the other side, this has become a field for amateurs, who use modern technology coupled with a sense that with few avenues for traditional employment and making money in a horrifying economy they are justified in finding any way to feed their families and keep themselves from living on the streets.
Recently I had experience with a company posting job ads online, who sent an application form via email they asked to be completed and sent back to them. As this is a fairly normal procedure, I did just that and found my computer infected with a particularly nasty virus. Once I was able to function again I found an email from another company offering virus protection from the virus I had been infected with. Neither company was legitimate and they were one and the same. These are the kinds of games being run by tragedy stalkers today, knowing the unemployed need a computer and internet connection to find employment they disable your computer and then try to sell you the antidote. With growing numbers of unemployed people desperately trying to stay in the market for work, they feed off that desperation and need to make both phases of their operation work. Other fake job postings and job sites function as phishing schemes to collect personal information from resumes and job applications.
Stalking people with little or no money would seem to be a foolish way to make money. The profit margin is very small, but working large numbers of people with little or no money is the key. Charging a person five dollars or less to receive some kind of services that would seem to help them in a time of need functions as a way of getting bank account information for further withdrawals down the line. I recently ran across a fake company offering "free legal advice" for $4.99 that was doing just that, all run by private individuals taking down information from their homes, selling it back to the "company" that sold them on the scheme, and somehow considering this a legitimate work at home business.
The people involved in these sorts of schemes are not your typical con artists. Many actually believe they aren't doing anything wrong and have justifications and rationalizations for doing what they do. Some simply believe anyone who is able to be duped deserves to be duped. Some live with being uncomfortable in what they do because they lack or cannot find other means to support themselves and their families, something I once ran into at a job I once had with unsavory business practices. In a society that legitimizes making money by any means possible these people often see justification in what goes on around them every day in the business world.
Most people would find the idea of tragedy stalking to be reprehensible. The idea of profiting off victims of tragedy or unfortunate circumstances would sicken them. Yet, my research into a variety of scams aimed at those in desperate circumstances yielded a great deal of frightening justifications and rationales. For those feeding off the unemployed who are looking for jobs, the most frequent justification seems to be "Get a job you bum." For those seeking legal help after being scammed, wrongly terminated from a job, or other situations putting them in dire straits, "Ambulance chaser" seems to be the common justification.
Ignorance and propaganda frequently fuel anyone's rationale for doing things they would normally consider morally or ethically reprehensible. There is the idea espoused by some that psychological issues arising as a result of tragedy is a crutch made up by those who work in and study the field of psychology and that such victims are just whiney and lazy. There is the idea that people who are unemployed and in need of assistance to help them get through until they find a job just aren't trying hard enough. There is the idea that it is very easy to sue a company for millions of dollars when in fact it is all but impossible to get a lawyer to take any case that isn't grounded in very legitimate grievances and damages. As long as myths are perpetuated about victims of tragedy and hardship somehow making out like bandits at the expense of "hard working citizens" the justifications for taking advantage of, and stalking, these victims will continue.
With a growing number of people finding themselves in desperate circumstances and looking for any method or edge by which they can relieve their suffering, tragedy stalking will be on the rise. It is easier to justify stealing candy from a baby if you're giving that candy to your own baby.