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Online Romance Scams Are Fleecing More Americans
Diana Hembree , CONTRIBUTOR
Romance scammers rob victims of more than their money.
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.”
Diana Hembree is the senior editorial director of MoneyGeek.com.