They met on a dating website. He was in his 80s, a Holocaust survivor looking for romance. She was in her 30s, a one-time psychic looking for riches. It wasn’t long before she plied him with a ruse, convincing him that she was due a big settlement from a car accident, but her lawyer refused to release the funds until paid a $25,000 fee. He loaned her the money. The lies would continue, and so would the payments, until he was bled dry.
The Daily Beast reported earlier this year that since 2017, a woman using the name “Alice” defrauded an 87-year-old unnamed New Yorker, a casualty of the Shoah, of over $2.8 million – his life savings. Alice had no qualms about taking the 62 checks, most written monthly and often in increments of $50,000, and depositing them in her bank account. It wasn’t until late 2021, after nearly five years of being bilked, that the victim confided to his son that he had been scammed.
Without his savings, he was forced to relinquish his apartment. Meanwhile, Alice was living a life of luxury, according to federal prosecutors, using his money to purchase a house in a gated community, a condo, and numerous cars, including a Corvette.
Stergo, from Champions Gate, Fla., not far from Walt Disney World, created a “Magic Kingdom” of her own. She took expensive trips, staying at places like the Ritz Carlton, and spent many tens of thousands of dollars on expensive jewelry and designer clothing from stores like Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, and Neiman Marcus.
Her high-end shopping days are now over. Alice was arrested, charged with wire fraud, and is facing up to 20 years in prison. STATUS OF CASE?
While online dating can be a great way to find lasting love, it too often is the best way for scammers to find opportunities to steal your money. Romance scams typically start when a criminal creates a fake profile on a dating app or website, or on social media. They then strike up a relationship with their target, building affection and trust.
Not long after, they make up a story and ask for money. These expert scammers, who come across as genuine, caring, and credible, prey on the victim’s heartstrings and kindness.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. government that promotes consumer protection, individuals reported losing a staggering $1.3 billion to romance scams in 2022. However, because the vast majority of frauds aren’t reported, this figure reflects just a small fraction of the actual monetary harm.
Here are some warning signs and actions to take:
- Romance scammers are masters of disguise, swiping photos from the internet and assuming the identities of real people. They may study information you share online and then pretend to have common interests, which results in them coming across as too perfect. Try a reverse-image search of their profile picture.
- They don’t intend to ever meet you in person, and they’ll make up excuses (“I’m overseas on business” or “I’m in the military”) to avoid doing so.
- When they ask for money on a gift or pre-paid card, by money transfer, or even by cash or check, it’s a scam. Full stop. Remember what Leonardo da Vinci said: “It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”
- Once Pergo’s mark made that first payment, it was game over. According to the feds, after each check was deposited, Pergo told the victim that her bank needed more money or else her account would be frozen and he would not be paid back. Pergo was adept at understanding human behavior, and our inclination towards loss aversion. If the victim didn’t make the next payment, he may not have gotten back the first, and so on, until all his money was gone. If that’s the case, err on the side of caution by resisting a request for money up front if you feel uneasy. Your gut feeling may be your best instinct.
- Pleas for money involve a variety of reasons: medical expenses for them or a family member, local ATMs being down after a disaster, wanting to meet but not being able to afford the plane ticket.
- If the connection started on a dating website, they tend to lure you off of it. Reports of unexpected private messages on social media or gaming platforms (e.g., Facebook, Words with Friends) are common.
- Many victims, mostly younger ones, report being pressured into investment opportunities, especially concerning cryptocurrency (e.g., bitcoin).
- File a complaint at the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (ic3.gov) and/or with the FTC (reportfraud.ftc.gov). It helps the authorities build cases and bring cybercriminals to justice.
The reason this fraud is so successful is because love is often blind. There are many cases, even with clear evidence presented, where the victim refuses to believe they’ve been duped. It’s difficult to overcome. If you’re a friend or family member of someone who has been ripped-off in romance, then be supportive. When speaking with them, keep the conversation friendly and relaxed.
Ask questions while maintaining their comfort in discussing and reflecting on it. The objective is to get them to question the story on their own and come to the realization that they’ve been defrauded. Tell them it’s not their fault and that it can happen to anyone. Above all, don’t blame them for what occurred.
Experts say that the effects of frauds on individuals are similar to the psychological aftermath experienced by victims of violent crimes and war. As such, they can experience anxiety, depression, even post-traumatic stress disorder. Give them understanding, kindness, love, and respect.
Online criminals are comforted by their anonymity, and view their prey as less than human. For at least the second time in his life, the unnamed victim described above was stripped of his dignity. Don’t let it happen to you, or your loved ones.
John Rotondi s the author of “Stand Up to Elder Financial Abu$e” (2017).