Overseas scammers could take advantage of a new website in South Australia that will allow anyone, anywhere in the world, to read a deceased person’s will online for free, a lawyer is warning.
- A new website for probate applications could be open to online misuse, lawyer says
- The website will remove all fees for viewing public documents such as wills
- The new system will be rolled out and ready by November 26
The new website is due to be rolled out in November and will replace the existing paper-based system for making and searching for applications of probate.
Probate refers to the legal process by which a deceased person’s will is proved valid, allowing their assets to be distributed.
The process has been temporarily frozen in South Australia, which will become the first state to move to an online system.
Lawyer Darren Kruse said the switch could cause a repeat of problems experienced by the Lands Titles Office, which recently saw more than a million property records downloaded en masse by a suspected overseas user.
Wills and probate documents are already publicly available, but currently viewing them requires first completing a paper form and paying a fee of $21.20.
The new system will remove all fees, and Mr Kruse said that opens it up to both casual sticky-beaking and more sinister forms of abuse.
“Information is valuable and it will almost certainly be sold on the black market,” he said.
“It certainly would be a valuable resource to assist with performing identity fraud.
“We need to make the decision to make that change consciously, rather than having it foisted upon us as a society.”
Wills of value to scammers
While the search does not provide a complete register of a deceased person’s assets, the wills do contain a list of all beneficiaries and often information about certain assets.
The new website for processing wills will be rolled out in November. (ABC News: Liz Pickering)
Mr Kruse said he feared fraudsters could use the data to take advantage of vulnerable and grieving people.
“Quite often I see husbands who have held the house in their own name… it goes to their wife who might be 90, and she’s just become a target,” he said.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Chris Kourakis said he was taking security concerns seriously.
“We have all along the way paid particular attention to security and cyber security and I’m sure we’ll learn from what happened at the Lands Titles Office and move to prevent this sort of mass harvesting,” Mr Kourakis said.
“In one sense free flow of information about assets might be important for the economy… for people to make good economic decisions, but it can also fairly obviously be abused.
“We’re getting the best international advice, because the providers of the platform… operate in the United States, so they have courts all over the United States using their system.”
Sworn oaths to be scrapped
The courts also plan to abandon a requirement for executors of estates to provide sworn evidence upon making an application.
Mr Kruse said that change had been made without any consultation.
“The people who hold the assets — the banks, the Lands Titles Office, the nursing home — they rely on the integrity of the grant,” Mr Kruse said.
“It has to be the case that the grant has less integrity because it’s proposed to be made now on the basis of unsworn evidence.”
Justice Kourakis said that concern was overblown.
“It remains an offence, it’s a general dishonesty offence to obtain a benefit by a false pretence,” he said.
He said he has also asked the Attorney-General to consider creating new offences for giving a court misleading or false information online, and abusing the electronic system.
A spokesperson for Attorney-General Vickie Chapman referred the ABC’s questions to the Courts Administration Authority.
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