How romance scams are thriving during quarantine

How romance scams are thriving during quarantine

The texts came nearly every morning. I love you. I miss you. I adore you. If Grace* didn’t answer immediately, Scott, her boyfriend — or beloved, as he liked to call himself — would get worried. Was she okay? Why wasn’t she answering her phone?

It had only been a few months, but Grace knew she and Scott were going to spend the rest of their lives together. They’d met on OurTime, a dating site for people over the age of 50. She was retired, middle class, a widow with three kids who all now had families of their own. He was a successful businessman who worked in solar energy, drove a Mercedes, and had two houses — one in Cuba and another in the US. He was wealthy and promised he would take care of her. There was just one catch: he was stuck in Havana because of COVID-19 and couldn’t access his money. Could she help?

Of course she could. Grace was in love. She trusted him. And wasn’t she ultimately using his money? So yes, she wrote some very large checks to pay for Scott’s business ventures, through a checking account he’d opened in her name. But the money in those accounts was money Scott had wired in; she was just helping him access it.

“I followed like a freakin’ sheep”

Then Grace started getting calls from the bank. The wires were being reversed; they were fraudulent. Grace was on the hook for more than $100,000. By the time she caught on to what was happening, Scott had disappeared, as had all of his online profiles.

“I followed like a freakin’ sheep,” Grace tells me. “I just can’t convey how humiliated and embarrassed I am. I’m just distraught that I got myself into this.”

But how could she not? The vision that Scott laid out in lengthy emails and text messages was one of comfort and closeness. “I can’t stop thinking about you and the future we have promised each other,” he wrote on February 13th. “lt has been the most amazing few weeks of my life, getting to know someone as loving and caring as you. l am opening up to you more and more. l love how it is happening naturally. l think about you a lot and just want you to know that. i can’t hold back the feelings growing inside me everyday for you. l hope you know that and feel it constantly too. My heart belongs to you now always and forever.”

Later, he began laying the groundwork for the financial fraud, which involved a joint business venture in Cuba. He framed it as an act of generosity — as the wealthier person in the relationship, he was sharing his resources with her. “All the money that l will ever make from now on l plan to put it into our common account together and plan the future and everything else we do with that,” he wrote. “l am completely open about my financial background with you in every way. l am trusting you with everything l am as a man now and forever.”

Grace had fallen victim to a romance scam, a complex web of fake personas, fraudulent wire transfers, and fictitious business opportunities. While these types of rackets aren’t new, they’ve grown more sophisticated with the advent of online dating and social media. Fraudsters like “Scott” use a network of online accounts — LinkedIn, dating sites, a bank, even Zillow — to make themselves look trustworthy and successful. Then they sweep the victim off their feet, quietly get access to their finances, and vanish. By the time the victim realizes what’s going on, it’s nearly impossible to find the scammer.

The problem has been exacerbated by COVID-19, which has provided the perfect cover for romance scammers. Prior to the pandemic, it might have seemed odd to start a relationship with someone without ever meeting in person. Now, for many older people who are single and also more susceptible to the virus, online romance is the only option.

The result is that people like Grace, who are savvy, well educated, and technically competent, are falling prey. Over the course of months, they’re seduced by the sincerity and openness of their suitor. The oddities that might otherwise have tipped them off — like the person being stuck in another country — appear ordinary and reasonable during quarantine.

“These scams are crimes, but for some reason the victim gets blamed”

To Grace, the damage is emotional as well as financial. “I don’t have anyone to talk to; I don’t want to tell my family I’m an idiot,” she says. It’s a level of shame that is typical for romance scams victims, says Amy Nofziger, director of the Fraud Watch Network at the AARP. “These scams are crimes, but for some reason the victim gets blamed a lot,” she says. “It can happen to anyone. These people are smart, they’re educated. They just fell in love.”

Grace moved to Northern Illinois a year ago to be closer to her two sisters and her son. She’d been with her husband for nearly 20 years before he died from cancer in 2017. She wasn’t lonely, but she also wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of finding love. So she signed up for OurTime. In January 2020, she met a handsome businessman who said his name was Scott F. Parker.

“He was very smooth, very persuasive, and very attentive,” Grace says. They started out talking on the app, then moved to texting and talking on the phone. Communication was nearly constant, and before long, they were in a committed relationship. “I was just surprised because all these great things were happening and we had never even met,” she says. “We were going to live this great life and travel. He had all this money and was going to take care of me. Every text started out ‘I love you and adore you so much.’”

Scott was open about nearly every detail of his biography. He told Grace his birthday (October 16th, 1965), his home in Illinois (a stately four-bedroom in Oak Park), and his favorite cologne (Creed Aventus). He had her speak to his mother, Christina, on the phone so the two could get to know each other. He discussed what type of health care they should buy and described his new business in Havana: a 10-acre property that he was turning into a resort. He said it would be part of their retirement.

Her children, when she told them, were skeptical. They pointed out that she’d never actually met Scott in person. But Grace had no reason to worry. Scott was the one with money, and he spoke of little else but when he’d be able to come see her.

Then, in April, he started pitching Grace on the idea of going into business together. The resort in Havana could be their resort in Havana, he said. The lockdowns were extending so he couldn’t come home, but he’d send the paperwork so she could get things started in his absence.

Scott set Grace up with an LLC, which he registered on incfile.com. Then he opened three checking accounts. He explained that he’d be wiring in money, and the bank wouldn’t insure anything over $250,000. When Grace logged into one account, she saw a wire transfer for $339,000. He asked her to pay some vendors he was working with. So she started writing checks.

It’s more work than most people put into a real relationship

For two months, everything seemed fine. If Grace had been skeptical at first, the amount of time that passed put her at ease. Then in June, the wires started getting reversed. The bank said they were fraudulent. “It totally blindsided me,” Grace says. She had to come up with the money for the checks she’d already written, which totaled more than $100,000. “That’s the part that scares the crap out of me,” she says. She’s still waiting to hear from the banks on whether they will come to collect. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if they do — she can’t afford to lose that kind of money.

It isn’t unusual for romance scammers like Scott to spend months gaining their victims’ trust. It’s what makes these crimes so difficult to execute but so lucrative when they’re successful. “When you think you’re in love with someone, it’s one of the most powerful emotions out of there,” says John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications, and fraud at the National Consumers League. “We pretty consistently see people losing their life savings and maxing out credit cards.”

Since 2015, financial losses associated with romance scams have increased sixfold. In 2019, they became the costliest scams reported to the Federal Trade Commission, with a record $201 million lost. And while anyone can fall victim, Nofziger says scammers tend to target older people, who hold the majority of wealth in the United States.

Oftentimes, scammers operate in groups, with one person playing the man or woman falling in love and others acting as business associates or family members. After meeting the victim on a dating site, Nextdoor, or even Words With Friends, they’ll quickly try to move off the platform where the conversation can’t get easily flagged. Grace isn’t sure how Scott’s scheme worked, but she suspects that the money she sent to vendors was actually going to him. His mother “Christina” was a character designed to make Grace feel at ease.

One difficulty with fraud carried out on a network of online platforms is that it’s hard to catch the scammer without cross-company collaboration. Dating sites, social media platforms, and banks are all used in the scheme, but without a method to track the person across websites, it’s nearly impossible to find out their real identities. “Nobody seems to take responsibility,” says Breyault. “There’s no way to stop the transaction.”

Even with that collaboration, it can still be difficult for the victim to understand they’ve been tricked. Scammers like Scott spend months gaining their mark’s trust and showering them with love and affection. It’s more work than most people put into a real relationship, which might be the first sign that the romance is too good to be true. Scott might not have loved Grace, but he certainly loved the thrill of the chase.

For Grace, the facade started to crumble when Scott failed to wire the money to cover the transactions that had been reversed. He stayed committed to the scam, telling her the funds were coming; the banks were just being difficult. But she knew in her heart it was a lie. She sent him an email calling him out on being a scammer and saying he was a despicable human. “My life was just fine before I met you. I certainly had more self esteem before meeting you,” she wrote. “I trusted you and believed what you’ve told me, the promises you made and that we could have this wonderful fantasy life. Congratulations on pulling a dirty scam and doing everything you did to make me suffer when I’ve never done anything to harm you.”

“How can you say those things about me?” he responded. He said he was about to fly home. She never heard from him again.

Grace had been alone before she met him, but now she was left more isolated, without anyone to talk to about what she’d been through. It’s one thing to be abandoned by someone who said they loved you. It’s another to be ghosted by someone who never existed in the first place.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of those involved

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