Cruise Ship Scam Over Faked Death

Scam uncovered by New York lawyer who speaks Hungarian.

ByABC News
January 23, 2012, 6:55 PM

Jan. 24, 2012 — -- A trio of alleged scammers have been caught allegedly faking a death on the cruise ship liner Costa Concordia in the first sign that con artists are targeting the crippled ship.

The scam was detected by New York lawyer Peter Ronai, who speaks Hungarian and is representing six Hungarian survivors from the ship wreck.

Ronai's claims were corroborated by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, which said they grew "suspicious" about a mother's claim that her daughter was missing on the ship when they discovered that the alleged missing woman's mother had been dead for three years.

"It was absolutely clear that it was a fake story, so we treated the request as a face action," Jozsef Toth, the head of the press department at the Foreign Ministry of Hungary told "We have initiated an investigation about the matter, who is this person and who made this report and what was the motivation? The investigation is ongoing."

A spokesman for the ministry said all of the suspects would face criminal charges.

The fraud became public as officials pulled another body from the wrecked ship, bringing the total of confirmed deaths to 16, with 16 others still missing. The missing include a couple from Minnesota.

Click here to see photos from the cruise ship wreck off the coast of Italy.

Ronai was in Budapest when he was asked to take a seventh case involving the ship a few days ago.

"I got an email saying, 'Can you please help us? My daughter is missing. She was on the Concordia,'" Ronai said. "I ran out to her house and basically she told me her 5-year-old granddaughter was missing, too."

The woman said she did not know what her 38-year-old daughter Eva Fiedlerne Puspoki was doing on the ship and that Ronai needed to speak to her daughter's boyfriend. He met with the alleged boyfriend who corroborated the woman's story.

They also asked how much money they could expect to receive for the claimed deaths, Ronai said.

But the next day, the "boyfriend" called back and told Ronai there had been a misunderstanding, that the child was not missing, the lawyer said.

"The story started changing and changing, more and more," Ronai said and as the story changed, his suspicions grew. He told the boyfriend that if he did not see the child, he would have to report a missing person to the police.

That night, he went to meet the boyfriend and brought the police with him. The child was there and they interrogated her.

"When is the last time you saw mommy?" they asked.

"Today," Ronai said the little girl replied. She said her mother had taken her to the park, to the swings.

"Are you sure you saw Mommy today?" Ronai recounts asking the child.

"I saw her today. I saw Mommy today," the girl replied.

The "missing" woman arrived, but even then Ronai said she insisted that she had been on the ship and injured her leg when she jumped off the boat. He said she showed no signs of injury.

"They confessed to everything after questioning. They confessed to pulling this scam to make money," Ronai said. "The police arrested them. They didn't take them away to jail, but they'll face criminal procedures."

When asked if he believes this will be the first of many cases of people attempting to take advantage of this tragedy, Ronai replied, "I think so."

"They're called 'jump-ons.' It's normal, this is just on a grander scale," Ronai said. "People will do horrible things for money. When you think about it, I had contacts at the embassy spending money looking for these people when they could have been looking for others."

He estimates that he spent about $10,000 on the fraudulent search, for expenses including a plane ticket, a private investigator, countless taxis and sky-high cell phone bills.

"In 20 years of doing this stuff, I've seen a lot of deaths and a lot of tragedies, but I've never met one family after losing a loved one that says, 'How much?'" Ronai said. "They always want to know, 'What happened? How did it happen?' These people wanted to know, 'How much?'"

ABC News Dragana Jovanovic contributed to this report