The “Sweetheart” Scam
Listen to Parents Are Hard To Raise Episode 47 where Nationally Recognized Eldercare Expert Diane Berardi talks with Personal Security Expert Anthony Colandro about keeping ourselves and our parents safe from the latest scams both online and off.
Essentially the victim meets a scammer on a singles or dating website who poses as a person also looking for a relationship online.
They chat over the Internet and exchange photos. The scammer typically sends photographs of a very good-looking woman or man, depending who their target is.
The victim thinks they have developed a relationship and over time falls in love. Eventually the scammer comes up with a story about how he/she has a major problem in their life which requires an outlay of money.
The victim, feeling the need to help their new-found love, ends up wiring money over and over again to this person, in some cases until they are bilked out of all their money.
Since the scammers are usually corresponding with the victim outside of the United States, it is close to impossible for U.S. authorities to identify or prosecute them.
Once the scammer has achieved their financial goal, they will drop the unsuspecting victim and disappear. Most victims are astonished when they realize that these deceptive individuals are adept at manipulating human emotions to get what they want.
A Cautionary Tale
At age 74, a wealthy, retired family physician in Beverly Hills, CA, let’s call him Edward recently lost his wife to breast cancer.
With the hope of restarting his life after several years of grieving, he joined a dating website to explore the idea of finding a female companion to share dinners, walks on the beach and other hobbies with. Edward was a needy soul at that time in his life—lonely, emotionally vulnerable and looking for love in all the wrong places.
This is when a victim is truly ripe for the picking by skilled online con artists.
One evening, Edward received a message from an individual who presented herself as a younger woman named “Alicia.”
She was attractive, in her forties and a divorcee living in London. She had a college-aged daughter and was struggling to make ends meet. The conversation flowed and blossomed into a friendship.
After just a few weeks, their correspondence had escalated from polite small talk to more intimate conversations. Within a month, Edward and Alicia were professing their love for each other. As far as Edward was concerned, although he dearly missed his departed wife, he had now met another soul mate and would do just about anything for Alicia as their relationship progressed.
Then one day Alicia missed an evening of corresponding online with Edward. This seemed odd to him, and he was distraught over their lost time together.
Alicia appeared online the following evening and told Edward a heartbreaking story. Alicia’s daughter had been killed in a car accident, and she would not be able to repay her student loans and cover her funeral costs without having to take out a special loan.
Edward was consumed with grief for his lovely Alicia, and he willingly offered to send her whatever she needed. A cash sum of $45,000 would certainly be enough to cover the expenses, he thought. But Alicia had other ideas. She gratefully accepted the transfer of monies into her British bank account, making sure that she always kept the door open for additional funds to be sent.
When Alicia shared that she needed to put a new roof on her home, Edward sent another $10,000, no questions asked. Then, she needed to replace her Mercedes that had been totaled in her daughter’s car accident. Of course, Thomas wired her $75,000.
Nearly a month after the death of Alicia’s daughter, Edward begged her to come visit him in Beverly Hills. He desperately wanted to meet her in person and thought he had waited long enough to be with his lovely Alicia. She accepted his offer, professing her love for him. Edward wired her the funds to purchase a first class round-trip ticket, promising that he would meet her at the airport in his private limousine with champagne for two weeks of idyllic frolic and fun.
On the evening that Alicia was to arrive, Edward made sure everything was in place. The stretch limousine, the champagne was in the back, and he had even reserved the penthouse suite at The Four Seasons.
Then, as his sweetheart Alicia was to arrive at the baggage claim, Edward began to notice there was no sign of any woman who even barely resembled the woman in the photo. Alicia never showed.
Not only was he unable to reach her by phone, email or text in the moments, hours and days that followed, he was devastated by the emotional deception and the loss of tens of thousands of dollars. Edward had been fleeced by a cyber con artist.
One may think that wealthy individuals like Edward are the only people scammers target, but that isn’t true. While a victim without financial resources may seem undesirable, scammers will still attempt to use their deceptive tricks to milk them for all they’re worth. In some cases they even succeed in getting their elderly victims to allow them to move in rent-free, hand over their social security checks or make risky financial moves, such as taking out a reverse mortgage, in order to get their hands on some sort of assets or income.
“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.
The victims tend to be widowed or divorced women targeted by criminal syndicates usually based in Nigeria, and Russia according to the FBI. The victims are educated, computer-savvy and emotionally vulnerable. 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.
10 Tips for Spotting and Avoiding Scams
Anyone can be scammed by a supposed sweetheart. But, according to law enforcement authorities, including local police departments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Secret Service, there are steps one can take to avoid falling victim to a sweetheart scam.
- Be on your guard. Try to look beyond the superficial. Whether you are interacting with people online or in person at a senior center, restaurant, grocery store or the post office, make a point of keeping your wits about you. Unfortunately, deception comes in all shapes and sizes and takes place in a variety of settings.
- Be honest with yourself. Look in the mirror and ask yourself the million-dollar question: “Why would a much younger individual want anything to do with me?” What is this person getting out of a relationship with you? If you discover anything pertaining to money in your answer, you know you are headed for trouble.
- Never transfer or wire money to anyone. This is especially important if you’re communicating with a stranger living overseas whom you’ve never met in person.
- Keep in touch with family. Share your new social interests and friendships with them. Your loved ones usually have your best interest in mind and can be trusted to provide honest advice and guidance.
- Consult a professional if an online relationship seems fishy. Law enforcement agents are experienced with sweetheart scams, especially since the usage of social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, has increased. If you have an inkling that something isn’t quite right with a new acquaintance, contact a professional for a second opinion.
- Do your homework. Nowadays, many people have left permanent digital footprints that even minimally tech-savvy individuals can find. Use Google to search for additional information on new individuals you meet and cross check the information they’ve told you about themselves. Even if things appear to match up, don’t assume they’re telling you the truth. Scammers often go to great lengths to pose as another person or create a believable online presence that backs up their phony story.
- Limit your use of social media. Scammers steal personal information online and utilize people’s social media profiles to learn more about them, their routines, vulnerabilities, likes and dislikes. They then use this information to tailor their manipulative approach to appeal to a person’s specific interests and weaknesses. Some scammers even monitor potential victims’ news feeds for information on friends and relatives they can pose as.
- Pursue relationships face-to-face. Avoid online dating if at all possible.
- Don’t feel ashamed. Although getting defrauded is embarrassing, understand that seasoned scammers have learned how to be very convincing so they can make a good living from deceiving people. If you or someone you know falls victim to a scam, report it as soon as possible to local law enforcement or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) website.
- Use common sense. This goes for any interactions with strangers, both online and in person. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.