Online Romance Scams on the Rise: Watch Your Heart and Your Money
By Gretchen Eisenberg
“Gretchen, I’ve met someone. He’s wonderful and I just may spend the rest of my life with him.” These words from someone I care about took me by surprise. Just a year after losing her spouse of a few decades, it seemed awfully fast to be speaking about ‘happily ever after.’ To respect her privacy, I will not disclose who the person I am speaking of is; however, I will share the basic details of what happened. She is a special person and what she experienced happens so often that it is way past time to warn others who may otherwise fall prey. From here on, I will refer to her as “Jill.” Perhaps Jill’s story can save another precious person from being robbed.
After my initial conversation with Jill, there was little doubt that she felt unsupported by friends and relatives she’d spoken to about the mysterious man we had not met. She wanted us to be happy for her; however, everyone was concerned. We all tried to find out as much as possible about him, hoping that he was not ‘too good to be true’ while wishing that he was truly looking for love. The more we asked about him, the more concerned we all became. This online Romeo claimed to be a wealthy crude oil dealer working in Turkey, claimed to be an American born abroad with no living relatives, convinced Jill that he had recently arrived in Turkey from China… With each passing day, my concern grew for Jill; she was using words like ‘forever’ and ‘marriage’ for a man she had yet to meet. When I asked if they’d spoken by phone; she replied that they were using Facebook messenger and that he was calling her phone from an untraceable number. He claimed that he could not use his “real phone” where he was working. About a week after our first conversation about this newfound Romeo, I said, “Jill, I want you to be happy but am worried. Whatever you do, no matter what the circumstances, please do not send this man money.” The response I got was intense, heated, and reactionary. That’s when the red flags I’d been seeing became flaming hot. Within a day or two, I’d learned that Jill sent one of her family members a photo of this Romeo. He was handsome, appeared significantly younger than his stated 68 years of age, was holding an adorable pup, and had an extremely friendly smile. I could immediately see why she (or any other person hoping for a comforting companion) could be attracted to this mystery man.
The alarm bells would not stop going off in my mind; for that reason, I reached out to some of Jill’s closest relatives to express concern and to see if any of them had met the Romeo. Everyone was extremely concerned. As for me, I was armed with that photograph and some basic knowledge thanks to good ‘ole Dr. Phil shows about how seniors looking for love are so often targeted by scam artists. After looking into it, I found a website run by Social Catfish which could use that photo I had to see if it was being used elsewhere. Sure enough, less than three minutes after uploading the photo, I found three different dating sites and even a Pinterest page with Romeo’s image…all with different names, stated places of residence, and family dynamics. Immediately, I let those other loved ones know that Jill was almost certainly being scammed.
Not knowing exactly how to approach Jill (after all, she was angry with me after our last conversation), I sent her a photo of the man from other sites and said, “Jill, if this is the man you are talking to, you are being scammed. This image is being used on several other sites.” She called back, excruciatingly heartbroken. She went on to share how this man scammed her out of $5,500.00 in just a few weeks. There was always some emergency. He had her purchase Amazon gift cards, take photos of the gift card numbers, and then send those images to him. The mix of heartbreak and embarrassment that she felt broke my heart too. I was infuriated that there are scam artists on some other side of the world who are determined to take advantage of vulnerable seniors this way, ready to rob them of whatever they can.
Jill’s story is not uncommon; as a matter of fact, a recent Federal Trade Commission report notes that there were more than 21,000 such romance scams reported last year…Those are only the ones reported! Out of those reported romance scams, Hundreds of millions of dollars are reported to have been lost yearly; there are no other consumer fraud losses this high. We know that there are many more because most victims do not know that they should contact the Federal Trade Commission or feel too humiliated to do so. The dating site that my friend Jill ‘met’ her Romeo on had already removed him once we reported it there because someone else reported his bogus profile.
Men and women like Jill get their hearts broken and years of savings and investments wiped out every day. Right now, as I type, there is some amazing person looking for love is being targeted by a scammer (or a network of such thieves pretending to be one person). They know how to captivate, how to make someone feel special, and how to get the vulnerable person to send lots of money for what seem to bee dire emergencies.
Affluent seniors seeking love online are more likely to be scammed than any other demographic. Because I work in an office where the best interests of hard-working, wise investors and their loved ones are looked after every day, I have a unique perspective of the care and thought that goes into making sure that people’s financial futures are secure. The idea that someone could be swindled after all that they have saved for in the name of love or companionship is nothing less than heart-breaking. If you or a loved one is looking to meet someone online, here are some tips to protect yourself physically, emotionally, and financially:
- Do not give personal information like your physical address or names and ages of your children or grandchildren.
- Beware when that online romancer claiming to be very successful or wealthy uses very poor grammar and spelling. Even correspondence supposedly coming from business or banking entities of these people will have the same errors. There are indicators that show that English speaking people who continue to converse and connect with these scam artists are more likely to fall prey to the financial traps. These are often not “accidental” but are used to see whether the person on the other end is gullible enough to steal from.
- These scammers typically waste no time manipulating their victims’ emotions. They will send poetry, claim undying love, promise to give the world and then some only to quickly start having dire emergencies requiring strange wire transfers or purchases of gift cards (Amazon, iTunes, and other store cards are common requests). Before you know it, your loved one (or you) feels infatuated, desperately wanting to save the online damsel or Romeo in distress.
- Do not share photos of your family with someone you have met online until you have met in person AND you have an idea of whether this is someone you can become friendly with.
- Always meet in a public location for those first few dates AND let someone know who you are meeting as well as where you are meeting.
- DO NOT send money, gift cards, wire transfers, or any other gifts to these strangers. Even if they seem to be in danger, in awful circumstances, or are desperate to purchase a flight to visit you—Do not send money!
- Talk with your closest friends and relatives about your desire to meet someone and about your loneliness or desire to move on romantically. Online dating can be a wonderful thing, but there are precautions to take in order to stay safe.