This is a love story. Though, it’s not your typical love story. “Oh he just was very complimentary,” said Jenny Hall, a Cedar Rapids woman who has tried online dating. “Told you, ‘You are beautiful.’ Blah, blah, blah.”
About ten years ago, Hall signed up for a dating site called Christian Café dot com. In fewer than 24 hours– a match, someone named Peter Morgan. He told Jenny he was an international businessman from Seattle.
Jenny did some digging online, everything seemed to check out.
“He was single,” said Jenny. “He had been looking for the right woman all his life and never had found anybody that he had felt comfortable with. He felt comfortable with me. He really thought that this could go somewhere.”
And for a few weeks, it did. The two left the dating site and started chatting frequently on AOL and over the phone. They got to know each other.
As they did– Jenny, believing it to be a dream come true, didn’t see the red flags in front of her.
“He went from Seattle to Nigeria and was working on roads there,” said Jenny. “I should have known.”
Should have known a charismatic con man was pulling her into an online romance scam. Also known as confidence scams– they happen when a friend or loved one preys on a person’s heartstrings to trick them into sending money.
The FBI tracks online romance/confidence scams in an annual report on internet fraud. In 2015, the scheme clocked in at number two nationally for dollars lost.
Victims said thieves made off with more than $203 million. That’s an increase of about 43% over the previous year.
And in Iowa…
“The confidence/romance scams are the leading loss-dollar figure-for internet-based, related crime,” said FBI Special Agent Tom Reinwart.”
Reinwart said crooks took nearly $1.4 million from Iowans in 2015.
For Jenny, the money request came a few weeks in. The con man, Peter, told her he was robbed overseas. Fortunately, she couldn’t afford to help at the time.
“I got mad,” said Jenny. “I said listen, I don’t have any money. If that’s what you’re wanting, let’s just stop this right now.”
Peter backed off– but tried another tactic later on. Still, Jenny refused.
It was toward the end of the fake relationship, about two months altogether, Peter finally got her.
He sent Jenny a bear, chocolates and roses. Next, Peter asked her to cash a check for $1,800 dollars. She could keep 800 for herself and send the rest to one of Peter’s phony friends.
Jenny did it– and received a call from a cop a few days later.
“He said I was going to be charged with credit card fraud,” she said.
Turns out, the bear, chocolate and roses had been bought with a fraudulent credit card in Jenny’s name. Peter forged it.
After talking it over, the officer told Jenny she had been duped by a romance scam.
Also that the check she cashed was likely going to bounce– which it did. Jenny was responsible for paying it back, all because she fell for simple charm.
“We’re all going to suck into– if someone complimenting you, you’re going to take it,” Jenny said.
Statistically woman, middle aged and older are the most vulnerable to romance scams. It can be much worse than what Jenny experienced. On average, thieves make off with more than $100,000 per person, according to the FBI.
A few years ago, one Cedar Rapids woman gave up around $200,000.
“She maxed all her credit cards,” said Tracey Robertson with the Heritage Area Agency on Aging. “She had taken out a $20,000 loan. Took money out of her 401K early. Had to pay tax on that.”
Tracey had to step in to help manage the victim’s debt. While romance scams aren’t the top concern for the Agency– it could be one day. Tracey says more and more the group is seeing elderly populations in Eastern Iowa fall victim.
“Think it’s just going to get worse with the Baby Boomers entering the age of greater risk,” Tracey said.
Hoping to curb the trend, Tracey’s group has started efforts to educate elderly people on what to watch out for online.
Meanwhile, law enforcement attempts to go after the crooks directly for wire fraud.
“Using wire, radio, television, any type of electronic communication in interstate or foreign commerce to further their fraudulent acts– that becomes a federal crime,” said Agent Tom Reinwart. “We have federal jurisdiction on those.”
The FBI says it’s not easy to stop romance scams. Con artists often hide outside US borders. They have tech to cover digital footprints. And a lot of times– victims don’t report the fraud. That makes it tougher for agents to build cases.
So, the first and best line of defense is being vigilant.
Like Jenny. Her love story doesn’t have a happy ending just yet, but an important safety lesson. She no longer dates anyone unless they’re from the area.
“That doesn’t mean you’re going to find prince charming,” said Jenny. “But, at least, you know– he’s close enough you can slap him.”