Two days into her fun-loving attempt at online dating, something odd happened to the 70-year-old retiree from Amherst.
She met a man and the two of them hit it off right away.
“I did it as a joke,” she said, “but I got a response from a guy in Toronto.”
James Kenneth Fox, purportedly an international contractor born in Denmark and living in Canada, told her he was looking for a nice lady to settle down with.
He also convinced her to leave eharmony.com, the dating website that brought them together, so they could focus on each other.
The Amherst woman, who was going through chemotherapy at the time and was upfront about it in her online profile, agreed.
Just about that same time, Fox began asking for gifts and money.
First it was a new laptop. His was broken. Then it was an Apple Watch and two new cellphones.
By the time she broke it off last month, she estimates she had sent him, a man she never met, about $30,000 in cash.
“I really thought we were soul mates,” she said. “I wanted to believe him. I always see the good in people. I’m just too honest and gullible.”
She’s not the first local woman to fall victim to a romance scam, but she is the first to talk publicly about it. She spoke to The Buffalo News on the condition she not be named.
“To me, it was real,” she said. “I had no doubts. I actually felt sorry for him.”
Sorry enough to send Fox cash when he claimed he had been shot five times while working in Malaysia. He said he needed $20,000 to pay for his surgery.
By that time, she already had sent him several smaller payments of $500 to $5,000, she said.
Eager to help, she borrowed $17,000 from her sister, who also communicated by email with Fox, and sent it to him. She followed up later with two payments totaling nearly $9,000.
“He had a legitimate answer for everything,” she said of Fox.
Her attraction to him, her confidence in who he was, was strong enough for her to ignore a warning from eharmony.com five weeks after she first met him online. The company advised her not to date Fox, but would not say why, she said.
Like many scammers, Fox earned her trust early on by sending her a copy of his latest bank statement from the Bank of Montreal showing a balance of more than $1 million. She said he also offered to transfer $45,000 into her account, but she declined.
“He told me, “I just want you to know I’m telling you the truth,” she said.
Later in the online relationship, he would tell her of his confrontation with armed men in Malaysia and how they shot him five times. He even sent a photo of himself in a hospital bed.
When he asked for money to pay for his surgery, she decided to email his doctor in Malaysia and someone posing as the doctor responded. Ultimately, with the help of her sister, she sent him $17,000.
By this time, she admits, she was convinced his story was true and that her doubts were misplaced. She said her sister also believed him.
“I’m thinking, I’m a terrible person,” she said.
She followed up that first large payment with a second payment of $5,000, money he needed to pay bills and travel home to Toronto.
“Don’t I get a text from him saying he had to use that money to pay his lawyer and he still needed money for airfare,” she said.
At that point, she sent a third payment of $3,800.
She said his plan was to fly into Buffalo, pick her up and then travel to Toronto. Eventually, they planned to settle in Buffalo, she said.
By this time, her friends had become aware of her relationship with Fox and, eager to intervene, asked Erie County’s Adult Protection Services to pay her a visit. She said the social worker told her Fox was a fraud and urged her to stop sending him money.
She said she began to realize the whole thing was a scam when she found Fox’s photo online but it identified the man in the picture as a doctor from Croatia. For the first time, she confronted Fox.
“I asked him, ‘why are you using someone else’s photos?” she said. “Is this you and don’t lie to me.”
He denied her allegations but she was certain for the first time her money was gone.
She also found herself, at the age of 70 and newly retired, back looking for a job. She said she needs to work so she can pay back her sister.
Romance scams have claimed at least two other victims in Western New York, both of them women.
In one of them, a highly-paid white-collar professional lost $718,000 to man she met on millionairematch.com but never met in person.
A romance scam cost one local woman $718,000 – and she isn’t alone
In the second scam, the victim lost $250,000 in cash and goods to a guy she met on Instagram. The man claimed to be working on an oil rig off the coast of China and told her he needed money to pay for repairs to the rig.
The FBI says the financial losses experienced by romance scam victims exceed those of any other online crime. In 2018, the agency received 18,493 romance and confidence fraud complaints from victims who lost more than $362 million.