Heads up: a genealogy scam

We learned about a new genealogy scam today. It seems unlikely that many people would fall for it, but … just in case, here’s a heads up. Here’s how the scam works:

  • The scammer hacks someone’s account at Ancestry.com (or at least finds their Ancestry password and accesses the account). From there, he can view any tree on Ancestry and send messages to any tree owner via the Ancestry messaging system.
  • He sends the message quoted below to anyone on Ancestry who seems a likely target. In the email below, the scammer is targeting a man named Willis, attempting to peddle Willis family records.
  • The name of the message sender is genuine: it is the name of the person whose account has been hacked. The account owner is unaware of the scam.
  • The scammer tells the potential victim to contact him directly, rather than the actual account owner (see boldface sentences in the message).

Bottom line: the scammer tries to sell alleged family history documents to the message recipient. 

Here’s an actual scam message, verbatim except for names at the beginning and end. Some of the information about William Willis in the second sentence may be genuine. I didn’t check. It would certainly make the scam more credible if it included accurate info, although that sounds like too much work for a grifter.

“A message from John Doe [name of person whose Ancestry account was hacked]

Good Afternoon [name of potential victim], I am writing you because I recently acquired a box full of genealogical information on your family from an auction in Sykesville, MD. Documents are mostly from the 1920-30s by William Nicolas Willis (1879-1939), a noted author, poet, genealogist and historian. This is a true treasure trove of family history that goes back at least 7 generations from his perspectives. There are some interesting photographs of family members, family properties, tomb stones, several trees illustrating the connections, many dozens of letters to & from his desk, journals, contemporaneous newspaper articles, etc. it appears from how William Willis drew his family tree there is a solid connection to George Washington during the 1600’s timeframe. There is even two photos of a family Elm tree from the John Willis plantation that is most suiting for this project of his. It appears that William had only one son, William, Jr. … so perhaps with his death the papers co no longer be passed to a next generations, so I ended up with them at an auction that would have thrown it all away otherwise. Please contact me so that I can go into detail and see if you would be interested in acquiring this tribe which I am definately certain will beef up your family tree on this site. I am using my nephew John Doe’s page on Ancestry so please write to me at {email address} If you respond on this site my nephew (in Ohio) will receive it but not know why as this is not his project. I look forward to hearing from you. [name of person who will receive the responsive email]”

End of message.

We don’t know whether the person who originally received this message reported it to Ancestry (we don’t know who he/she is – just that he is a Willis researcher). If you get something similar, please do report it.

Anyone who reads carefully would probably not fall for this. It was plainly written by someone for whom English is a second language, not unlike those emails from a “Nigerian Prince” that we have all received. However, it’s hard to overestimate the appeal of all those alleged family history records, supposedly establishing a connection to the line of George Washington.

Also, based on the amount of obvious errors one finds in online trees, perhaps there are naïve possible victims for this scam on Ancestry. 

Here’s my latest experience with bad trees, also passed on as a caution.

I recently took Ancestry’s autosomal test, and then learned that I really needed to post a tree to make it useful. That is no fun at all. Here’s why.

If you have worked on building a family tree at their website, you know that Ancestry provides “clues” every time you enter a name. For example, I added to my tree the name of an ancestor born in the early 1800s. Up popped a “clue” to the name of his parents. The suggested parents were so far out in left field that I couldn’t even imagine how someone invented them. I’d never heard of them.

Fortunately (or not), Ancestry lets one connect to the source of the information in its clues. When I went to one of the trees sourcing that bad clue, I found a host of Ancestry trees having a picture of my mother. Several of them gave her an inaccurate name or a nonexistent middle initial. 

A number of friends have told me how upset they get by the bad information posted online about their families. I am not usually among them. Still. This was my mother. Golly gee, if someone can post my mother’s picture, he or she could at least get her name right! I realize that is a minor error that won’t lead anyone down the wrong ancestor trail, so it is really of no consequence.

NONETHELESS: I promptly fired off a cranky message to one of the portrait/wrong name posters (who also had the error about an ancestors’ parents, a meaningful one), implying that she was giving serious genealogists a bad name by copying other peoples’ info without verifying it. Upon further examination of the tree, I figured out the identity of the tree owner and her relationship to me. Unfortunately, it’s a close kinship, despite the fact that I didn’t recognize her married name.

Gee, I wish I hadn’t fired off that cranky message!

Takeaways from that experience …

  • Don’t accept information posted on other family trees without confirmation in ACTUAL records. I’ve said this before, and will undoubtedly say it again: online trees don’t prove anything except how easy it is to construct and copy other people’s family trees that may be full of errors. Look closely at posted trees, and you will find, say, a 9-year-old women having children. Or a woman marrying a man who was already married. My favorite: a 120-year-old woman who was still reportedly having children, nontwithstanding that she had been dead for 60 of those 120 years. I’ll bet you have one that can top it. If so, please share.
  • Likewise, don’t accept Ancestry’s “clues” at face value. Check them out. Just because Ancestry provided the will of some William Rankin, that doesn’t mean it is your  William Rankin — an error called “same name confusion.” At least take the time to read the damn will, where you might learn that the testator wrote the will in Franklin Co., PA in the 1790s, while your ancestor William Rankin died in 1850 in Lackawanna Co. You wouldn’t believe how many wills, S.A.R. applications, church and other records are attached to the Ancestry profile of a person who has no family connection whatsoever to the attached “source.” They might not even share a given name, which really boggles the mind.
  • Don’t be an old grouch who attempts to correct someone else’s tree, as I did. You will be wasting your time. They probably won’t give a fig if their info is wrong, especially if they just copied it from someone else’s tree – or blindly accepted an Ancestry clue. Furthermore, errors on Ancestry multiply faster than Tribbles: exponentially. Trying to correct them is a losing battle. Finally, don’t send a cranky message to the owner of the erroneous tree because you might wind up regretting it.

That’s it for now. More Rankins are calling. Also Burkes, Trices, Estes, Winns, and Lindseys. Oakes, Odoms, Stubbs, and Hubbards. Powells, Vaughans and Perrymans. As a distant Alexander cousin likes to say: NOBODY HAS MORE FUN THAN WE DO. <grin>

See you on down the road.

Robin

Query: Ann Winn Webber of Northam Parish, Goochland, VA

A recent comment on a Winn post on this blog asked the following (lightly edited):

“I am wondering if you, or anyone else reading this blog, might have run across an Ann Winn who married William Webber III on 1 August 1764 in Goochland County, Viriginia. The marriage is recorded in the Douglas Register. The family seems to have resided in St. James Northam Parish, where William Webber died in August 1794. William Webber III and his wife Ann Winn had at least the following children: Philip (named for William Webber III’s father), Benjamin, John, Mary , Keturah, Susannah Winn, Charles, William IV, and Archer. I’ve also seen a son named Archibald attached to this family, although Archer and Archibald may be the same person. Ann Winn Weber is sometimes identified as a daughter of John Winn and Mary Pledger of Hanover County, but my impression is that their daughter Ann was married to Nathaniel Holman and no one else. Any information, thoughts, theories, or suggestions on who this Ann Winn was and where she fits in the Winn family would be much appreciated. Thanks.”

OK, Winn experts, please weigh in! Either post a comment on this blog or communicate directly with Jeff Duvall, who is looking for this information, by email at jduvall@iupui.edu. Sissy? Bill? Anyone?

Hope this gets some results! Thanks in advance …

Robin

Rankin, Upton County, Texas

Want to see two characters from Lonesome Dove taking a selfie? Get yourself to Rankin, Texas. The town is perched atop the Edwards Plateau in the Middle of Nowhere, population 778.[1]

 

I have no idea what the town is best known for, but I’ll put my money on an old corrugated tin building decorated with a funky Texas flag and portraits of Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow F. Call of Lonesome Dove. Someone with a puckish sense of humor painted the pair on horseback, with Call taking a selfie.[2] Tommy Lee Jones would probably approve.

 

Google says the town is named for F. E. Rankin, a “local rancher.”[3] In fact, F. E. did receive a grant of 640 acres in Upton County in 1911.[4] However, he apparently never lived in Rankin. Instead, he and his family lived in Midland County. He is listed in the 1910 census there as “Finis E. Rankin” with his wife Eliza and son Porter, age 20 (born about 1890). The name Porter Rankin rang a tiny bell, but I wasn’t sure why. Finis, Eliza and Porter were born in Tennessee, and the couple’s parents were also born in Tennessee.[5] The 1900 Midland census reveals that F. E. was born in January 1856 and was a “cattle raiser.”[6]

Findagrave.com website often has errors in its unsourced obiter dicta, but the tombstone pictures and obituaries posted there are pretty good evidence.[7] The Fairview Cemetery in Midland has a tombstone for F. E. Rankin (“father”), 1856 – 1916, and Eliza Rankin (“mother”), 1862 – 1953.[8] Better yet, there is a Midland County death certificate for Robert Porter Rankin (1890 – 1 Nov 1962). It identifies him as a son of F. E. Rankin and Eliza Smith. Best of all, it says Porter was born in Belt Buckle, TN. That town is in Bedford County, telling us where to go look for Finis et al. before they came to Texas.

With a name like “Finis” and the additional information, tracking this line was a piece of cake. There is a marriage record for F. E. Rankin and Elizabeth Smith for 27 Jul 1879 in Bedford County, TN. At age 5, Finis and his younger brother Porter were listed in the 1860 census for Bedford County with their presumed parents Robert and Matilda Rankin.[9] The 1850 Bedford census adds a middle initial: his name was Robert D.Rankin, and there was a David G. Rankin, a child, in the household.[10] The 1880 census identifies David G. Rankin as a son of Robert D. and Matilda.[11]

At this point, bells began to ring in earnest. The names David G. Rankin and Porter Rankin are firmly planted in my memory … and in my family tree software. A different (and older) David G. Rankin was a son of Samuel and Eleanor (“Ellen”) Alexander Rankin of Lincoln Co., NC – my ancestors. I have written several article about Sam and Eleanor: here is one. The elder David. G. Rankin’s wife was Anne Moore Campbell, and they had a son, Rev. James Porter Rankin, who died at age 26.[12]

David G. and Anne Rankin migrated from Lincoln Co., NC to Rutherford Co., TN. A deed there identifies a Robert D. Rankin as a resident of Bedford Co., TN; other records make it clear that Robert D., father of Finis, was a son of David and Anne.[13]

And that’s enough for Rankin, TX. I’ve just written more words than there are people in the town. And whoda thunk I’d find relatives near there.

See you on down the road.

Robin


[1] Rankin’s population of 778 is per the 2010 census.

[2] A friend who writes a travel blog called Wanderwiles took these two pictures and kindly sent them to me.

[3] See Note 1.

[4] Texas Land Title Abstracts, Certificate No. 982, file No. 85690, 640-acre grant to F. E. Rankin dated 26 Oct. 1911.

[5] 1910 federal census, Midland Co., TX, household of Finis E. Rankin, age 54, b. TN, parents b. TN, with wife Elisah (sic, Eliza), 48, TN/TN/TN, and son Porter Rankin, 20, TN/TN/TN.

[6] 1900 federal census, Midland Co., TN, T. E. or F. E. Rankin, b. Jan 1856, age 44, married 20 years, cattle raiser. Household includes wife Eliza, b. Feb 1862, who has had 3 children, all living; daughter Maud, b. Apr 1880, son P. B., b. Dec 1881, and son Porter, b. Feb 1890.

[7] The deceased isn’t ever around to give his/her date of birth, and my experience is that children often haven’t a clue what year their parents were born. Tombstones are subject to that possibility. AND, once in a while, people have been known to fib about their age, a frequent occurrence in census records.

[8] Tombstone for Finis E. Rankin.  

[9] 1860 federal census, Bedford Co., TN, District 4 has household of Robert Rankin, 45, farmer, $16,500 realty, $15,000 personalty, b. TN. Also listed in the household (all born in TN, and all with the surname Rankin), were Matild (sic, Matilda) 35, Nancy 21, David 19, Thomas 17, Jame 16, Ellen 13, Susanah 11, Malinda 9, Virginia 7, Finis, 5, and Porter, 1. 

[10] 1850 federal census, Bedford Dist. 4, Robert D. Rankin, farmer, $7,000 real property, b. TN. Matilda Rankin, 33, Nancy A. Rankin, 10, David G. Rankin, 9, William Thomas Rankin, 8, Janes? C. Rankin, female, 6, Martha E. Rankin, 4, and Susannah M. Rankin, 1. 

[11] 1880 federal census, Bedford Dist. 5, David G. Rankin, 38, farmer, b. TN, parents b. TN, wife Laura T. Rankin, 30, NC/NC/NC, sons Robert E. Rankin, 12, Wm A Rankin, 10, Leon Augustus Rankin, 7, Albert E. Rankin, 2, and Osman G. Rankin, 1.

[12] Rev. James Porter Rankin, born May 10th, 1805, died Sep 11th, 1831, aged 26 years 1 mo. & 1 day. Obit in the National Register & States Gazette, Sept. 17, 1831, says Rev. J. P Rankin died in Rutherford Co., TN. His tombstone in the Old City Cemetery in Murfreesboro, TN shows dates of birth and death as May 10, 1805 – Sep 11, 1831. His parents David G. and Anne M. C. Rankin are buried in the same cemetery.

[13] Rutherford Co., TN Deed Book Z: 93, bill of sale dated 15 Jan 1842 from Robert Rankin of Bedford Co., TN to Martin Alexander of Rutherford, an enslaved person. See also Rutherford Co., TN Deed Book 1: 523, Robert D. Rankin and William C. Rankin, administrators of the estate of their sister Mary (Rankin) Montgomery. Mary M. Rankin married Joseph A. Montgomery in Rutherford County on 10 Sep 1831.