Warning: Heartless gravestone scammers target NJ families
🔺 Grieving NJ families paid thousands for gravestones and never got them
🔺 The scammers change business names to avoid detection, officials say
🔺 Major tips can help prevent you from falling victim to this scam
For years, authorities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been trying to crack down on scammers taking money upfront to manufacture a gravestone and then vanishing before the work is done.
Victims mourning the loss of loved ones have had hundreds of thousands of dollars stolen from them, according to reports from ABC 6 Action News and the Daily Voice. Scammers would cold call grieving families and offer a better price on a headstone if the victim paid in full upfront.
Pennsylvania gravestone family sued by state officials
One family that has repeatedly come up is Greg Stefan Sr. and his sons Greg Stefan Jr. and Gerard Stefan. They opened several fraudulent companies including Lifestone by Stefan, LLC, Stefan Memorials, Inc., and 1843 LLC., according to Pennsylvania Acting Attorney General Michelle Henry.
Pennsylvania first sued the Stefans in 2015. Earlier this year, the Stefan family and Keystone State authorities reached a settlement that included more than $300,000 in restitution for scammed families and an injunction against Greg Stefan Sr. to prevent him from being involved in "any business that provides or engraves headstones for consumers."
Under investigation in New Jersey and PA
But then in late August, the Vineland police issued an arrest warrant for Greg Stefan Jr.
"Gregory John Stefan Jr. is wanted for a Theft by Deception case. Stefan Jr. took money for a headstone and did not deliver. He has multiple companies based in PA and NJ that are used for these thefts and has been under investigation by the PA AG's Office," police said in a wanted flyer.
According to the Better Business Bureau, Stefan Jr. is the president of Colonial Memorials in Bridgewater, which opened in April 2021. The business had its accreditation revoked on Sept. 26, 2023.
Regulations in New Jersey are lax
Part of the trouble with stopping scammers is that there is no specific license or process in New Jersey required to open a retail monument or memorial company, according to John Farrell, a master stone cutter and owner of Farrell & Marino Monuments in Ewing.
There are also no protection laws specific to the retail monumental industry.
"It's kind of the same as if you're a Nigerian prince and you want money. That's the same law governing that. If you're going to get scammed, you're going to get scammed," Farrell said.
Helpful tips to avoid getting scammed during such a vulnerable time
🔺 Call the cemetery
Graveyards aren't just fields where people bury their loved ones; the land is owned and operated by someone. Local churches, municipalities, and private companies own and run cemeteries throughout New Jersey.
Calling the cemetery where a loved one will be buried is one of the best ways to get reliable information, Farrell said.
Office staff for most cemeteries in the Garden State can provide a written list of reputable monument companies in the area. To avoid favoritism, they must provide more than one company.
🔺 Know what to expect
A good way to avoid getting scammed is to know how the process of paying for a gravestone typically works.
Manufacturing a headstone can take weeks to months, so any company that asks for full payment upfront should be treated with reasonable suspicion.
Farrell said his business requires a deposit of one-third upfront and then the second payment is required once a sketch is complete. The final payment is only required after the stone is completely carved and it's at their shop for the customers to review.
"Come in, take a look at the stone. You can see it, you can touch it. And at that time, we require the final payment before it's actually installed in the cemetery. Payment is something that every business requires, so you have to give something down. Giving it all down is not a good thing," Farrell said.
🔺 Search for reviews online
While reviews left on sites such as Google and even Yelp for monument companies should be taken with a grain of salt, they can provide some valuable insight.
Searching online for local monument dealers and looking at reviews can be a good way to filter out businesses that consistently underperform.
Finding a company's Better Business Bureau page can also uncover complaints from unhappy customers. More than two dozen people have left complaints about fraud on the BBB page for Colonial Memorials.
Once a dealer that appears reputable is found, the next steps should be checking their references, calling the cemetery, and then calling the dealer to get a feel for how they operate, Farrell said.
🔺 Don't give in to pressure tactics
There are some legitimate monument companies that will look through obituaries and cold call mourning families, Farrell said.
This doesn't necessarily mean the dealer should be avoided, but a customer should do their due diligence before making any arrangements. And that goes for any sale, according to Farrell.
"I believe that it should never be a pressure sale. Take your time. This is something that goes in the cemetery. It's something that you purchase for life. It's going to be there for eternity, basically. You want to take your time, make sure the design is what you want, make sure everything about it is what you want. Don't get pushed into it," Farrell said.
One red flag to watch for is if a cold caller offering to manufacture a headstone claims to be from a cemetery. Cemeteries aren't allowed to sell their own memorials.
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