A Texas woman in her fifties was trapped in an abusive marriage. But against all odds — and to her joyful amazement — she found her soulmate online. The man she fell in love with was a contractor named “Charlie,” who shared her Christian faith. They prayed online, laughed and sang together. “I was looking for happiness,” she recalled. “He was interested in me. He was interested in knowing me better. He was very positive, and I felt a real connection there.”
As the romance progressed, Charlie confessed to some problems of his own. He was having trouble completing a construction project in California and asked for a loan of $30,000, which he promised to pay back right away. A few months later, he needed another loan. By the time her alarmed financial adviser convinced her to contact the FBI two years later, she had sent Charlie $2 million – her entire life’s savings.
That’s when Charlie disappeared.
Like other women seduced by a romance scam, the Texas woman was sick with shame and humiliation. However, she chose to come forward so other women wouldn’t suffer a similar fate, according to FBI investigators. Recounting the story in a recent report on romance scams, the bureau notes that the woman still clings to a faint hope that Charlie will pay her back, that he really did love her. “There can’t be a man this horrible, to do what he did to me,” she told FBI investigators.
This heartache – and financial ruin – is all too common in romance scams, according to the FBI. The romance scam has ballooned in recent years, according to Laura Eimiller, communications director for the FBI in Los Angeles. In 2016, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received close to 15,000 reports of “romance scams,” amounting to more than $230 million in losses. (That was 2,500 more reports than the previous year.) The states with the most victims were California, Florida, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania.
Individual losses are higher than in other scams due to the nature of the crime, according to the FBI. In figures from romancescam.org, which has 59,000 members, 1,813 members have reported more than $25,891,837 in losses to romance scams – an average of more than $10,430 in losses per victim.
A scam based in Nigeria
The victims tend to be widowed or divorced women in their fifties targeted by criminal syndicates usually based in Nigeria, according to the FBI. (Russian fraudsters are also heavily involved in romance scams, according to romancescam.com.) The victims are educated, computer-savvy and emotionally vulnerable, the agency adds. Con artists are able to hone in on that vulnerability because potential “marks” post openly about their lives and dreams on social media and dating sites.
By now most Americans have been warned about the Nigerian scam in which a supposed prince or wealthy person asks for your help (“Dearest one”) in depositing his millions in a bank, of course offering a slice of that wealth for your trouble. The problem with the romance scam is that the scammers take on other, more ordinary identities: businessman, contractor, soldier. “The Internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anybody you want to be,” FBI special agent Christine Beining, a fraud investigator in the Houston division, has declared. “You can be anywhere in the world and victimize people.”
And scammers are not just targeting the United States. Since 2010, Canadians have lost nearly $50 million to romance scams (also called confidence scams or sweetheart scams). Rosanna Leeman, 48, told Canadian reporters that she fell for a widower she met online who told her how incredibly lucky he was to have someone like her in his life. They planned to meet after his business trip to Dubai, but he called her to say he had left his wallet and ID in a taxi there. Leeman offered a loan to help out and wired him $7,000, after which he vanished. “I was mortified,” she told reporters from the Toronto Star and CTV W-5. “It was heart-wrenching. I thought, ‘This can’t be happening.’”
Men have also been victimized. In Vancouver, a gay man named Tony told CBC News that he had lost $500,000 to a man he met on an online dating site. “How could I be so stupid to fall into the trap?” he told reporters. “Love is very powerful, even when it’s fake. Love can make you do anything.”
Trolling for victims
It’s one of the oldest cons there is. And as Leeman can attest, it’s a scam in which trust, vulnerability and a longing for love are heartlessly exploited.
“Scammers are trolling social media and dating sites for victims,” warns Eimiller. The scammer often claims to be working overseas and therefore cannot meet in person. After developing a relationship, he will ask for a loan, often to finish some sort of project he is working on abroad.
The site romancescam.org warns of still uglier variations to the fraud. In a particularly sinister variation of the scam, a “suitor” convinces a woman in love to disrobe for him on Skype or other communications he can videotape. He then blackmails the victim by threatening to release the videos or photos on Facebook or email unless she pays him off.
In another variation, the scammer “confesses” he is part of a scam to bilk people out of money, but insists he has fallen in love with the victim. The victim is often all too willing to believe him. A few have even accepted invitations to travel to Nigeria or another country, with frightening results. As the FBI puts it, “Victims who have agreed to meet in person with an online love interest have been reported missing, or injured, or in one instance, deceased.”
How to avoid romance scams
Taking some commonsense precautions can greatly reduce the risk of falling victim to a romance scam. Here’s what the FBI and other experts suggest.
Do your research. If you’re in an online relationship, take it slowly. Since social media profiles may be fake, do online searches on your sweetie’s photo and profile to see if it has appeared somewhere else. Be wary if someone asks you to leave Facebook or a dating service to talk “offline.”
Be skeptical of boyfriends you’ve never met. “If someone is asking for money or professing their love to you before you’ve even met them, that should suggest this may be fraud,” says Eimiller. Other common red flags, she says, include a suitor who can’t meet you because he is supposedly working overseas, “and one who tries to isolate you from your friends and family or to keep your online relationship secret.”
Do not send money to anyone you don’t know personally. Once money is wired overseas, it is virtually impossible to recover, according to Eimiller. (Insurance policies don’t cover such scams.) Do not believe the scammer’s promises that you will be repaid, she says. In addition, don’t give anyone access to your bank account information so they can “store” money there. And beware of anyone who asks you to mail packages on his or her behalf: You might find yourself implicated in a criminal operation.
Cut off all contact with a scammer. Once you realize you’re dealing with a fraudster, cut off all contact. Block the person from your email and social media. Ask that packages not be delivered to your home or work. The scammer will soon move on to another victim and leave you alone.
Don’t try to exact revenge. Although it may feel tempting to get back at someone who has hurt you so badly, realize that you are dealing with a professional crime syndicate. Some victims who try to taunt their tormentors have had their families threatened or sent malware that destroyed their computer, according to romancescams.org. Also, be aware that “detectives” who offer to unmask the identity of your former love are usually themselves part of a scam. Report what you know to the police and the FBI’s IC3 unit instead.