When Shuntra Muse called me last week, her voice had a panicked tone.
She and I had been talking, on and off for a month or so, about how Muse, 56, had been victimized in an internet romance scam. That stretched back to the fall of 2018. She’d sent all of her savings — more than $8,000 — to some guy she met online who claimed to be a drilling engineer with a major oil company.
She ended up losing a car, the house she leased on Plantation Road, possessions she had in a rented storage locker and her job, she said. She felt angry about the scam, which we’ll get into in a minute. But on this call, Muse sounded fearful. She had just gotten off the phone with a federal agent, she told me.
“He’s a special investigator,” Muse said. “They’re trying to do an indictment against me. If I send him $1,500, he could make sure that won’t happen.”
In fact, it was yet another scam — one that the Roanoke office of the FBI has been warning callers about on the voicemail system that answers its phone.
People are also reading…
“The FBI is aware of a telephone scam that states individuals who are currently under investigation by the FBI must pay fines in order not to be arrested,” that recording begins. “Please be aware the FBI does not request money from anyone.”
In some cases, the message continues, the scammers have “spoofed” their calls so Caller ID indicates the call is from the FBI. But that’s simply another layer of the scam.
An employee in the FBI’s Roanoke office who declined to give me her name said it’s been inundated with such calls in the past three weeks. Dennette Rybiski, a spokeswoman for the FBI Field Office in Richmond, said the “federal agent scam” warning has been placed on all the voicemail systems for the Richmond FBI’s satellite offices, such as Roanoke’s.
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, more than 10,900 people nationwide reported losing more than $64 million in “federal agent” impersonation schemes in 2018.
In Muse’s case, the “agent” claimed to be from the “Fraud Detection Office” in Washington, D.C. The caller gave her his name and phone number and warned her not to mention his call to her friends and family.
“What should I do?” Muse asked me.
“Give me his name and number,” I said. I told her I’d call her back.
The number was last listed to a closed real-estate office in Prince William County. But now when you call it, a recording identifies the place as the “Washington, D.C., Fraud Detection Office.” If you hang on the line, a guy named Jeremy will answer the phone.
I identified myself by name, but not by occupation as I normally do. I told “Jeremy” I was an acquaintance of Muse’s and she was seeking a $1,500 loan “to get out of legal trouble.”
He told me he was a “special detective investigator,” and that his office had flagged Shuntra Muse for “conspiracy to commit international money fraud.”
“She has fallen into what’s known as a ‘love scam,’ ” Jeremy told me. “Sending money to scammers is illegal,” he added.
A lengthy and at times bizarre conversation ensued. Most of Jeremy’s patter amounted to pure bull excrement. He told me Muse’s name “had come up” in a recent investigation. If Muse didn’t pay $1,500, “we send the file to the court. They will issue a warrant or a summons. She could be arrested.”
There actually is a Washington, D.C., Fraud Detection Office. It’s a unit of the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General. But the inspector general probes wrongdoing within the Justice Department — not citizens who’ve been scammed.
When I pressed, Jeremy said he was not a sworn law enforcement officer. Rather, the Fraud Detection Office was a private entity “that works with the courts.” It was all malarkey.
Later, I called Muse back and suggested she block “Jeremy’s” phone number, and that in no case should she send him any money.
It’s not like she has much left, after the romance scammer got done with her.
She’s a divorced mother of four, who first made contact with the “oil drilling engineer” in the fall of 2018. They met on Facebook, around a time Muse had a serious health scare. He said his name was Mark.
Muse didn’t begin sending “Mark” money until this past March, however. That happened after he told her he’d been transferred to Nigeria and had lost an “electrical jacket” that protected him from getting shocked while drilling for oil. From Africa, he couldn’t access his own bank — but he needed to buy a replacement “electrical jacket” before he could work.
Muse said she sent him $2,300 from her 2018 tax refund.
Later, “Mark” told her another story. His daughter attended a private boarding school in South Africa. She was about to get kicked out because he owed $2,500 in tuition, Muse said he told her. Muse sent that, too. The rest of the money she sent happened in smaller amounts, usually via gift cards such as for iTunes.
“Mark” even managed to get $1,000 from her 30-year-old son, Muse told me.
David Mortellaro, a therapist and clinical director for the Roanoke counseling practice Associates in Brief Therapy, told me such romance scams are way more common that many people realize. Typically the victims are women, and they come from a broad spectrum of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, he said.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, online romance scams cost victims $164 million in 2018, and the average amount they lost was $2,600. Many victims get scammed during a period of distress in their lives, Mortellaro told me.
“Without that emotional vulnerability, most of these things don’t happen,” he said. “They’re seeking good feelings, and validation, and the scammers give them that. [The victims’] emotions override their logic.”
Muse’s health issues were hardly the only distress in her life this past year. In May, her youngest son, 16, died unexpectedly. That’s too long a story to detail here. Much of the money Muse sent “Mark” was after that tragedy.
Mark “told me he loved me,” she said, “and that he had millions in the bank, and that he was going to move to Roanoke and take care of me.”
Muse emptied her savings account for “Mark,” and sold an extra car she had. She said he encouraged her to quit her job as a warehouse worker for a retail sales operation — and she did. Not much later, she said, she couldn’t make her rent and was evicted.
Nor could she afford rent for items she’d put in storage. Those were auctioned off.
“My car’s about to be [repossessed],” she said. “I’m now living in my ex-husband’s car.”
The week before last, “Mark” contacted Muse again. She showed me the texts. And even though by then her suspicions about him were sky-high, he almost preyed on her again.
He told her he was back in the United States and had been arrested in Texas, and needed bail money. Muse tried to wire him $300. For whatever reason, the money service she attempted to use blocked that transfer. She informed “Mark” of the hitch. Shortly thereafter “Jeremy” starting calling her from the “Fraud Detection Office.”
Odds are, the two men are working together trying to squeeze even more money from Muse. She told me she realizes this account doesn’t make her look like the brightest bulb in a bunch.
“I was stupid,” Muse said. “But I don’t want this to happen to other women.”