In the past year, Union County Deputy Sheriff Rich Crabtree has noticed an uptick in the number of people who have been conned in a romance scam. But what worries him even more than the increase is the use of one particular method by scammers: obituaries.
“People often say in obituaries that the couple was married, you know, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years and so you know the survivor’s going to be lost,” said Crabtree, a crime-prevention deputy in the department’s support-services division. “These scammers prey on loneliness and tell you what you want and need to hear.”
What’s commonly known as “sweetheart scams” are far from new. You’ve heard about them before, or maybe you or someone you know has been a victim.
Often, you meet someone online. They travel a lot, maybe say they’re in the military, in construction, often something that takes them out of the country. And before long, they need money.
You likely send a small amount at first, and then the situations get more dire, the requests bigger. Before you know it, your savings is gone. And so is the person you thought was the love of your life.
Technology — phone apps such as the encrypted WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — has only made the scams easier.
From the FBI: How to protect yourself
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center logged 791,790 complaints in 2020 about all types of internet crimes — ranging in everything from identity theft to gambling schemes — representing losses of $4.2 billion. The number of complaints was a 69% increase over 2019 and a 165% increase from five years ago.
The sweetheart scam numbers — also known as “confidence fraud” — registered 23,741 complaints in 2020.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office recorded 39 sweetheart-scam complaints last year, ranging from a woman who authorized a $400 transaction on her debit card to a man who gave away $119,000 in cash.
Large sums of money are at stake in the fraudulent dating business. Just earlier this month, a Columbus man pleaded guilty in federal court to his role in a scam that conned $6 million from those looking for love.
But experts say officially reported numbers are alarmingly deceiving for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that most scams never get reported because people are embarrassed by what happened to them, said Tim McGuinness, who founded a nonprofit organization called Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams (SCARS).
SCARS operates in the arena of crime prevention but also is devoted to helping victims of these scams reclaim their lives, he said.
“We have to help the world understand that the world online is not safe,” said McGuiness, a 67-year-old from Florida with a background in internet and computer technology. “People don’t do enough in-depth research to really understand the psychology behind how this works. You cannot intellectualize your way out of danger. Once the manipulation has taken hold, even if you see the red flags you will ignore them.”
What does that mean? McGuinness said we have to analyze our own behaviors to understand why we do what we do and, perhaps most importantly, reverse the internet culture that convinces us to judge our worth and popularity by how many online “friends” we have.
Debby Montgomery Johnson, who works alongside McGuinness at SCARS and personally mentors women who have been scammed by love, said that’s where the prevention part becomes important — by helping people realize what they’re looking for and why they’re so desperate to get it.
The 61-year-old from Florida knows firsthand.
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After her husband died in 2010, the lost and lonely widow soon met a man online. Two years later, she’d given a little more than $1 million in to to her beloved “Eric,” a world-traveling contractor who said he lived in London, when she discovered he was really a man in Nigeria.
Her situation was rare, however, because the scam ended when the man, whom she had met on a Christian dating site, actually revealed himself to her over a video.
The former Air Force intelligence officer and investment banker was wrecked, both emotionally and financially.
“So many of our survivors are well-educated, well-financed and really terrific. And they would give anything to be loved. I had just lost my husband, and I found something that made my heart happy,” she said. “The point is that it can happen to anybody.”
The story of Ohio’s infamous ‘Sweetheart Swindler’: She picked pockets and stole souls
So what can be done about it?
Crabtree said that many of his cases are calls from friends or relatives concerned about a loved one. So paying attention to those who may be most vulnerable — the elderly, the isolated, those who have suffered a recent loss — goes along way.
“Family has to stay involved,” he said. “Because people do things they would never, ever do if they weren’t lonely.”
Once a scammer makes a connection — either online or through a text message or phone call — scammers in recent years have started reaching out by phone or text and, for example, saying they’re with a grief support group and calling to see how they can help. Then they move the conversation to a different platform, such as WhatsApp.
Crabtree said that messaging applications trend toward younger folks, so if, say, someone is worried that Grandma might be being scammed, check for that app on her phone because a scammer likely told her to download it to make communication easier.
Review bank records for suspicious activity, Crabtree said. And, if necessary, do a little sleuthing yourself. Most scammers are part of organized groups and essentially use playbooks, so the same personal story is told over and over again, he said.
But, Crabtree said, even with proof it can difficult for someone to accept they’ve been bamboozled.
Johnson, who has written a book and devotes her life now to helping women either avoid being scammed or to recover from one, understands that.
“The hardest part is forgiving yourself for being so taken,” she said. “I was not going to let this man get the best of me. I have fundamentally become a better person since what he put me through.”
For additional resources, visit SCARS at www.againstscams.org; visit AARP at www.aarp.org or call its Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360; and many law enforcement agencies and crime-victim-assistance programs host trainings on how to avoid scams.