Massive Amount of Romance Scams Target Older Victims

Broken heart / heartbreak full of love on white background

Q. My brother is a disabled older adult living in a group home. He has no assets thathe can access himself, but does have significant assets in a special needs trust with me as the trustee.

Recently, he has been asking me for money to send to his new “girlfriend” who he met online. He even asked me to pay for his flight to Russia, so he can get married. I am certain this is a scam, and the scammer does not know that my brother has no money that is under his control. I could see my brother bragging to her about having lots of money, even though it is unavailable to him, except through me.

How can I assist my brother in this situation, and what are some things you can tell other seniors so they don’t get taken advantage of?

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A. Thank goodness your brother’s assets are protected via his special needs trust and for your wisdom to see through this scam. Most romance scam victims are not so lucky.  There have been several high-profile romance scam cases now in federal court and warnings being issued by the FBI and the FTC.

The Extent of the Problem

Millions of Americans visit online dating websites every year hoping to find a companion or even a soulmate. The FBI is warning seniors and others that criminals are using dating sites, such as Match.com, eHarmony, Plenty of Fish, and even social media sites such as Facebook, as well as direct email, to turn the lonely and vulnerable into fast money through a variety of scams.

To gauge the extent of the problem, the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel database began separating romance fraud complaints into a separate fraud category several years ago.  In 2015, the FTC received 8715 complaints. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) unfortunately stopped contributing its complaints to Sentinel two or three years ago, but they reported an additional 12,509 complaints for the same period.  IC3 also reported aggregate losses to their victims at $204 million for 2015 alone. According to the IC3, romance scams were the largest personal fraud crime based on losses reported last year.

Romance scams affect men as well as women, younger as well as those older, and gays and lesbians as well as heterosexuals. The one thing victims all had in common was a very strong belief in true love and the existence of a soul mate. And they believe that they have found that, usually despite clear warning signs.

How Romance Scams Usually Work

According to the FBI, these scenarios provide examples of how romance scams typically work:

Scenario 1: You’re contacted online by someone who appears interested in you. He or she may have a profile you can read or a picture that is e-mailed to you. For weeks, even months, you may chat back and forth with one another, forming a connection. You may even be sent flowers or other gifts. But ultimately, it’s going to happen—your new-found “friend” is going to ask you for money.

So you send money…but the requests don’t stop there. There will be more “hardships” that only you can help alleviate with your financial gifts. He may also send you checks to cash since he’s out of the country and can’t cash them himself, or he may ask you to forward him a package.

So what really happened? You were targeted by a criminal, probably based on personal information you uploaded on dating or social media sites. The pictures you were sent were phony, lifted from other websites. The profiles were fake as well, carefully crafted to match your interests.

In addition to losing your money to someone who had no intention of ever visiting you, you may also have unknowingly taken part in a money laundering scheme by cashing phony checks and sending the money overseas and by shipping stolen merchandise (the forwarded package).

Scenario 2: In another recently reported dating extortion scam, victims usually met someone on an online dating site and then were asked to move the conversation to a particular social networking site, where the talk often turned intimate. Victims were later sent a link to a website where those conversations were posted, along with photos, their phone numbers, and claims that they were “cheaters.” In order to have that information removed, victims were told they could make a $99 payment—but there is no indication that the other side of the bargain was upheld.

Recognizing an Online Dating Scam Artist

Your online “date” is probably  only interested in your money if he or she:

•Presses you to leave the dating website you met through and to communicate using personal e-mail or instant messaging;
•Professes instant feelings of love;
•Sends you a photograph of himself or herself that looks like something from a glamour magazine;
•Claims to be an American  traveling or working overseas;
•Claims to have been born and raised in another country to account for his or her poor writing and grammar;
•Makes plans to visit you but is then unable to do so because of a tragic event; or
•Asks for money for a variety of reasons (travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospitals bills for child or other relative, visas or other official documents, losses from a financial setback or crime victimization).

How to Steer Clear of Romance Scammers

The general rule is that if you meet anyone online, and for some reason cannot meet in person, there is a very high probability (nearing certainty) that it is a fraud.  Do not loan or give personal identifying and financial information or send money to someone in an online romance or a voice on the phone.

Reporting Romance Scams

In romance scams, victims may not know they are fraud victims for some time, and then when they do realize that they have been defrauded they are so devastated that they never file a formal complaint, or do not know where to go to file a complaint that would become part of a national database. The victims may blame themselves, become emotionally distraught, or feel simply ashamed and are quite unlikely to go to law enforcement about their problems. If you or a loved one are the victim of an online dating scam or any Internet facilitated crime, the best thing you can do is file a report. You can do so via:

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)  https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/ or call 877-FTC Help. The FTC database of fraud complaints is available online to over 3000 law enforcement agencies. Because it contains a great deal of personal information on fraud victims it is not available to the general public.
Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)  https://www.ic3.gov/complaint/default.aspx.  This is an especially useful place to complain if a business email compromise is involved.  IC3 data is generally available only to the FBI and not to other law enforcement agencies.
•National Consumers League  www.fraud.org
Senate Subcommittee on Aging Fraud hotline  http://www.aging.senate.gov/press-releases/senate-aging-committee-launches-new-anti-fraud-hotline-enhanced-website-to-assist-seniors 1-855-303-9470
Western Union 1-800-448-1492; https://www.westernunion.com/us/en/file-complaint.html
•MoneyGram  1-800-926-9400; http://global.moneygram.com/nl/en/how-to-report-a-problem
Identity Theft Resource Center www.idtheftcenter.org This is for victims who have shared documents such as passports, social security numbers or other identifying information.
•If victims are seniors, they may be able to obtain help through Adult Protective Services, which has offices in every state and many counties.  Find your local office at www.elderjustice.gov.
•www.ScamSurvivors.com. They deal with all sorts of fraud victims, including romance scam victims.
Romancescams.org This group asserts that it provides counseling and support groups for victims.

Planning to Protect Loved Ones

Protecting seniors and mentally fragile adults of all ages from scams is very important. It is also very important to protect yourself and your loved ones. If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long- term care, please contact us to make an appointment for a no-cost introductory consultation.

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

 

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