meLlen Floren was not looking for love. Criminals who lured her into online fraud last summer approached her not at a dating site, where she might have been cautious, but through the center of the neighborhood called Nextdoor. A man who said his name was James Gibson said he had noticed his profile on the site. He also lived in his Chicago neighborhood, he said, specifying a street. Could they have a conversation?
“He was very polite:‘ I hope I’m not out of place. I just found you very attractive, “recalls Floren, 67, a part-time educational consultant. They chatted on the site for a week or so. “Then it was,” Is it okay if we send an email? “” She agreed. They soon moved on to phone conversations, often lasting an hour, and texting multiple times a day. “It became very seductive,” says Floren. How could you help sympathize when he revealed that his wife and son had died in a car accident a long time ago?
Although they had exchanged photos, they had not met in person; He said he was working temporarily in a distant suburb, a high-level job in communications systems, and that he was staying in a hotel.
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But after a few weeks, when he said he was coming to Chicago, they agreed to have dinner. “I thought, ‘This is a person I’m going to enjoy meeting,” says Floren. He was disappointed when the supposed Gibson came too late to see her, then, apologizing, said he had just gotten a great job in Europe and had to leave. right away, postponing their date The elements of deception and manipulation in Floren’s story sound familiar to those familiar with the rise of online romance scams.
Scammers now find victims on any social media platform: Instagram, Facebook, games like Words With Friends. But “they quickly want to remove it from the platform,” says Amy Nofziger, director of the AARP Fraud Surveillance Network. Romancers ask to switch to text, phone, or messaging apps that offer more privacy and less security monitoring. Sharing personal contact information also makes both parties appear trustworthy.
The tragic personal story, the swift professions of love combined with the distance that keeps the parties from coming together, fit the pattern, says Monica Vaca, associate director of the Office of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Also the photographs. “You feel more like you know this person because you’ve seen his photo,” says Vaca. “Invariably, it’s a photo of someone else.”
It may be weeks or months before scammers, usually not individuals, but shift criminals (hence their ability to be online all day), make the key move. They ask for money. Reports compiled by the FTC from consumers and local law enforcement agencies show how abruptly online fraud is increasing. In 2015, the agency received 8,500 of those complaints. Last year, the number exceeded 25,000, although Vaca warns that “this crime is not reported dramatically.”
But what really caught regulators’ attention, given that other fraud categories generated more complaints, was the money involved. “It is the number 1 fraud category if you look at the total dollars that people reported losing,” says Vaca. In 2015, people reported losing $ 33 million (£ 26 million) for romantic fraud; Last year, they lost $ 201 million, more than victims lost in lotteries and fake raffles, imposter fraud, or tech support phishing.
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Older adults have been particularly affected. Anyone, regardless of age, sex, or level of education, can fall for a romantic scam; in fact, younger adults are more likely to report loss of money from these scams. “But when older people report losing money, their dollar losses are much higher,” says Vaca. The median loss for victims of romantic fraud in their twenties was $ 770. People in their fifties reported losing twice as much. Losses reached $ 3,000 for victims in their sixties and $ 6,450 for those in their seventies.
“We have heard of people refinancing their homes and collecting retirement accounts,” says Nofziger. “Scammers go where the money is, and criminals know that older adults have the majority of assets in the United States.” Last year, federal prosecutors filed a series of alarming romance cases. A 76-year-old widow in Rhode Island transferred more than $ 660,000 to bank accounts that she believed belonged to a US Army general in Afghanistan. (Posing as a military member is another red flag, along with locations abroad.) In Oklahoma, 10 Nigerian and American citizens were charged with a multi-victim fraud network in three states. A Georgia grand jury indicted a man accused of defrauding a Virginia woman, who had a large trust, of $ 6.5 million.
Floren may qualify as one of the luckiest victims. When “James Gibson” was leaving for Europe, he suddenly called and said that his Netflix card had expired. “I really wanted to be able to watch movies on the plane,” he recalled. “Could I go to a Walmart and buy him a $ 100 Netflix card?” Gift cards, untraceable and available everywhere, have become the currency of choice for scammers, says Nofziger. But they can also ask victims to open a bank account and provide access to it, or to send iPhones.
Floren bought a gift card and read the number to her apparent suitor. Three days later, he called again, claiming to have left an expensive tool bag in a taxi. “I was hysterical on the phone,” he said. The tools were worth $ 4,000, but he had found replacements for just $ 2,600. Would I send you the money? He took a break, had a cup of coffee, wondered why an international traveler had no credit card or employer willing to help. When the man called again, she announced, “You’re ripping me off,” threw some expletives and hung up, blocking him online and over the phone. Total financial loss: $ 100.
When she posted about the fraud on Nextdoor and Facebook, other women said they had been similarly defrauded. However, victims often feel too humiliated to speak about what happened. A 68-year-old social worker in the Bay Area, for example, asked not to be identified because she had not yet told her family about a scammer she found on Our Time, a dating site for singles over 50. Claiming to be an air force pilot, he emailed his effusive poetry (probably copied from romance novels, experts say), then persuaded her to send $ 1,200 to a place in the Middle East, where he was allegedly serving. .
“Can you believe how silly I was?” said the social worker. “What was wrong with me?” He regrets being angry at a friend who questioned the relationship. In hindsight, he blames his vulnerability on the fact that his mother was dying. “With this fraud, especially, there is a lot of emotional trauma,” says Nofziger of his victims. “They are ashamed. Their hearts are broken. They not only lost their money, but also the dream they had.”
She advises friends and family to treat victims with care. “He leads with kindness and empathy,” she says. “‘ How can you be so stupid? It’s the worst that can be said. “She encourages victims to report these crimes to the FTC or the FBI. An AARP Helpline helps people file complaints.
Bottom line: Anyone who seems to be looking for romance online, while somehow never being available to meet in person, may be a fiction created by criminals. They are patient and skillful, and they have plausible reasons to ask for money, but that is the signal for victims to flee. “Now,” says Floren, “as soon as someone asks me for 10 cents, I would say no.”
© New York Times