Don't Be Fooled

That Online Relationship May Just be a Scam


A less discussed but equally important aspect of aging well is protecting your money. I’m not talking about creating a solid financial plan or having enough money to live on, but about avoiding those who trick unsuspecting victims into giving away their hard-earned life-savings. I am referring to scammers, also known as con-artists or fraudsters, who fool people into giving them money, personal information, and property.  

In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported criminal cases against more than 260 scammers who had exploited 2 million Americans. The losses in those cases totaled more than $700 million dollars. However, many cases are not reported; so that may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Unfortunately, seniors have few defenses against such tactics. Typically they were raised to be polite and can be somewhat naïve regarding scammer tricks. They may also be lonely, willing to listen, and more trusting than younger individuals.  

Scammers exploit those traits, knowing that it can be difficult for a senior to say “no” or recognize a fraud. They communicate with their victims by computer, phone, or mail to gain their trust. Once successful, they keep going in the hopes of significant financial gain.

Kiplinger Magazine identified 6 types of elderly scams.

Sweepstakes/Charity/Lottery -Scammers claim to work for legitimate charitable organizations to gain victims’ trust or they claim a person has won a foreign lottery or sweepstakes, for which they must collect a “fee.”

Tech Support - Scammers pose as technology support representatives and offer to fix non-existent computer issues. They gain remote access to the victim’s devices and sensitive information.

Grandparent - Scammers pose as a relative—usually a child or grandchild—claiming to be in immediate financial need.

Romance - Scammers pose as interested romantic partners on social media like LinkedIn or dating websites like Silver Singles or Our Time to capitalize on an elderly victims’ desire to find companionship.

Government Impersonation - Scammers pose as a government employee, like the IRS, and threaten to arrest or prosecute victims unless they agree to provide funds or other payment.

Home Repair - Scammers appear in person and charge homeowners in advance for home improvement services they never provide.

Fortunately, my only experience with scammers was an email allegedly from PayPal saying there was unusual activity on my account. I clicked on the tab which said delete this charge without checking the address or my account first. I was quickly concerned that I’d  given a fraudster access to my personal information, my contacts, or my computer.

I immediately closed the account, changed my passwords, and did a complete computer scan, just in case. Fortunately, there were no problems, but I learned a huge lesson which led me to take a class on scamming and to study about elderly scams.

I am also very careful when playing Words with Friends (WWF), the popular online game. While it’s fun to play and chat with others, I have no way of knowing whether the people I chat with are friendly or chatting for more devious reasons. The following story alerted me.

Early in 2018, a 75-year-old woman living near Portland, Oregon, began trading messages with a man on the WFF app. She was lonely. He was friendly — and seemed interesting, saying he was a native of Italy and worked on an oil rig near Texas. After a month of increasingly intimate chats online and over the phone, he hit her up for iTunes cards worth between $5 and $25. He lied, saying he used them to call his children; the cards actually are used for movies and music, and are popular way to get money.

Romance Scams

While there are many types of scams, this article focuses on romance scams - someone tricking another person into falling for them when they really just want money.

Romance scams occur when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust. The scammer then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and/or steal from the victim.

The stories of Angie Kennard who felt something was “off” with her 79-year-old father and Candace whose mom is addicted to online romance scam are good examples. 

About two years ago, Angie Kennard had a feeling that something was “off” with her then 79-year-old father. When they talked on the phone, he would tell her about a woman he met online and occasionally sent money to. Even though her father never met the woman in person, she would profess her love for him through emails and ask him to send her money to feed her and her daughter. Angie told her father that he was being conned, but he would not listen and continued to send the woman money anyway. It was only after Angie was given power of attorney over her father due to a massive stroke that she realized the extent of the scam. She found numerous emails from the woman asking for money, including receipts from wire transfers. After doing a little digging, Angie found that her father had sent the woman more than $700,000 over a course of two years; practically his life’s savings. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. 

Candace’s told her story to Dr. Phil.

In both stories, the victim believed their new love and would not be talked out of their beliefs.

It’s hard to resist connecting with people, particularly after a year of social distancing and separation from family and friends because of the pandemic. Scammers know this and take advantage of people’s loneliness to trick them out of their money.

This new love interest usually seems like a perfect match. The scammer provide photos and a profile that make it appear as if they have shared interests. However, more than likely, the photos and interests are fake.

Typically, the scammer spends time getting to know their victim and develops trust before they ask for a loan or access to any money. Then, they make up a tragic story or an emergency reason for why they need the money and promise to pay it back.

How To Avoid Romance Scams

The bottom line: be smart about who you connect with and what information you share.

  • Don’t share personal information such as your bank account, credit card numbers, or Social Security number.

  • If you ask this new friend questions and he or she doesn’t give you straight answers or question why you’re asking, be suspicious.

  • Never send money, gift cards, or wire transfers to someone you haven’t met in person. Some scammers will ask you to buy gift cards, say from Target. Gift cards are like cash in a lot of ways – they are hard to trace and once used, it’s hard to get your money back. Unlike wire transfers, they are easily purchased and can provide instant funds, without setting off any alerts.

  • Limit the personal information you share online and on dating apps like eHarmony and Match.

  • Consider making your social media profiles private.

Five Simple Rules

According to the LifeLock website, you can look for love online while still protecting yourself using the following five simple rules.

The first rule is don’t take the conversation outside the website by sending emails or talking on the phone, at least not until you have reason to trust this person.

The second rule is to watch for tricks. Tricksters may claim they have an out-of-town job as an explanation for why they can’t communicate regularly. When, in fact, they are communicating with other victims at the same time..

The third rule is to hold on to your money.  Never agree to give or move money, or other property, to anyone you meet online. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been chatting. If the other party needs money and has no other means of getting it, this may be a warning sign.

Fourth, be mindful of flattery, pet names, and promises of lifelong romance that come far too soon in a relationship. In “real life” you’d likely run away from someone who started talking about marriage on the third date, so there’s even more reason to be cautious if someone who’s quick to befriend you over the internet.

Finally, take time to think. Trust your friends and family. If the people around you are worried, that doesn’t mean you have to drop the online friendship, but you might want to give their concerns some consideration. They might be seeing something you aren’t.

Just stop and think for a while, look through your messages to each other and proceed with caution. I would say trust your instincts.

According to the FTC, in 2020 losses due to romance scams reached $304 million, up about 50% from 2019. From 2016 to 2020, the reported total dollar loss increased more than fourfold, and the number of reports nearly tripled.

What puzzles me is why people are so willing to believe a scammer.  Maybe Marna’s story and the back story provide answers.

You might also find the following website to be an excellent resource. Make sure to listen to the YouTube videos of the victim’s story and the special agent’s description of the scam.

So, it sounds like there are a variety of reasons why someone would choose to believe a scammer. Reasons such as loneliness, vulnerability, a desire for connection and support, and wanting to be helpful all play a role.

Few things in life are as wonderful as falling in love. But before you let someone steal your heart online, make sure they’re not really trying to steal your bank account or your identity.