Ever spend Valentine’s Day alone?
If so, you might understand why February is such a busy month for romance scammers.
“I’ve never felt so seen or understood by another person in my life,” 62-year-old Marie says about a man she met online last year. “We had the deepest conversations I’ve ever had. The most romantic and soulful.” Marie is an experienced online dater and an acclaimed artist based in Florida, with no spouse or kids.
This potential soulmate claimed to be a Swiss national living in London and Cyprus. He also claimed to be a widower, 15 years younger than Marie, the father of a 10-year-old daughter. He was notably handsome, dark-haired and sophisticated in European fashion, restaurants, wine and travel. They spoke via phone and video chatted for hours every day. Despite her suspicions that this man was too good to be true, Marie fell in love with a person she’d never actually been in the same room with — who might not even have been human.
Every year, “romance scams” and other types of so-called relationship fraud cost Americans, especially those over age 60, over one billion dollars annually, according to the FBI 2022 Elder Fraud report. The risks are projected to increase with the recent growth of Open Source Artificial Intelligence, often called ChatGPT, a powerful computerized research and impersonation tool. The fake cupids you meet online can seem incredibly real, as artificial intelligence enables bots to hold realistic, thoughtful verbal conversations.
Caitlyn Neff, an FBI victim specialist based in Tyler, Texas, believes the emotional trauma these online criminals cause often equals, or outweighs, the financial devastation.
“Victims are not stupid or gullible,” Neff explains. “Victims truly believe this is a caring relationship that has developed organically and magically over time. The perpetrators invest an astounding amount of time targeting and seducing their victims.”
Marie’s “dream date” made plans to travel to Florida over Thanksgiving to meet her, and to finalize a complex Miami-based real estate deal. He canceled because of a “legal delay.” He rescheduled for Christmas Eve. Another cancellation, though he insisted he’d make it all up to Marie with a lavish Valentine’s Day dinner in South Beach.
On February 13th, he called, almost in tears. His Cyprus-based bank had frozen his account. He needed to wire $600,000 to the seller to save the transaction. Could he deposit the money in Marie’s Florida bank account, just for a few hours, and then transfer it to the client? Then he’d be free to fly to Miami to see her.
Caught up in the desire to finally meet this man she thought she loved, Marie agreed. Then she made a decision that kept her out of jail. She walked into her bank and explained the situation to the manager.
“This is fraud,” he said, turning ashy white. “I’m calling the FBI.”
It turned out the FBI already had a file on her supposed lover, who turned out to be a professional scammer who had successfully used dozens of older women as money mules, “borrowing” from their U.S. bank accounts to launder illegal funds. However, despite knowing it was all a scam, Marie still treasures the way he made her feel and even keeps a picture of him on her phone.
The FBI’s advice to avoid online scams is straightforward: if people sound too good to be true, they probably are.
“Be suspicious of anyone, even someone you know and trust, who approaches you online or via phone, cracks your heart open with expressions of deep caring, and then asks you for money or to share personal information such as your computer login, bank or internet passwords, credit card information, date of birth, social security number, or home address,” warns FBI victim specialist Neff.
Think you are too smart to fall for this kind of scheme? I did too.
“Leslie, your book The Naked Truth saved my life.” The Instagram message was from Alexander Decker, a 58-year-old Harvard Business School graduate from New York City. Like me, he had three kids and two divorces. He had read my latest memoir, and he regularly referenced small moments from the book, which is the most flattering thing you can do to a writer. Not incidentally, he had piercing blue eyes. He also had a scruffy beard that belied intentional seduction and a small, sweet, knowing smile.
I began checking my Instagram account several times a day, hoping for another eloquent share from Alex. He confided in me about his two failed marriages, his kids’ anger, his deep sympathy for the women he had treated poorly and all the ways my writing had changed him for good, inspiring him to go to therapy and to create a foundation to help abused women.
After 10 days of torrid messaging, a few peculiarities stuck out. Alex communicated only between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. every day. He said he was 58, then 55. His Instagram messages were filled with typos, which he blamed on dyslexia. When we switched to email, the grammatical errors vanished. Was he in prison, with limited Internet access? Then the light bulb went off: could he be using open-source Artificial Intelligence — ChatGPT — to woo me?
With some online sleuthing, I discovered that the email IP address was in Nigeria. The photo was a stock picture of a middle-aged Scandinavian model. A real person, just not an American one named Alexander Decker. Luckily, I had not given the scammer my cell phone, address or any passwords. To be safe, I put a temporary hold on my bank accounts. And I blocked “Alexander Decker” from all my social media accounts.
But like Marie, I missed my imaginary lover. Can you long for a fake human? Trust me, you can.
We victims of romance scams are in excellent company. In 2022, over 19,000 victims filed complaints of romance fraud with the FBI, involving $735,882,192 in reported losses. The IRS, Department of Justice, FBI, FTC and Social Security Administration all have departments devoted to preventing and prosecuting online fraud.
If targeted, change your computer and social media passwords immediately. Be wary of anyone applying emotional pressure. A time-sensitive, psychologically wrought crisis is designed to override your self-protective caution. Finally, take action. File a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, contact the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP or online, or the Department of Justice Elder Fraud Hotline at 1-833-FRAUD-11.
You can also call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 1-877-908-3360 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. East Coast time. For legal advice, contact your local bar association.
Then forgive yourself. Enjoy this whole month devoted to love, with a friend, a spa day or just you and your favorite heart-shaped chocolates. Keep on pining for true love. Just never give anyone access to your passwords, your money or your heart, without first verifying they are exactly who you think they are.
Have you ever been the victim of a romance scam? What happened? Let us know in the comments below.
The Romance Scams You Need to Be Aware of — Today!
If online 'soulmates' seem too good to be true, they probably are.
Ever spend Valentine’s Day alone?