An investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of West Virginia revealed a romance fraud scheme that defrauded 200 victims, many of them elderly, of at least $2.5 million. Multiple defendants, one of them based in Huntington, “participated in a series of romance and other online scams designed to coerce vulnerable victims into sending money to various bank accounts controlled by them.”
The romance scam is just one of the tricks scofflaws use, and older individuals are frequently the target. According to the FBI’s Elder Fraud Report, “The number of elderly victims has risen to an alarming rate, while the loss amounts are even more staggering. In 2021, 92,000 victims over the age of 60 reported losses of $1.7 billion.”
The romance scheme accounted for more losses than any other con, over $430 million nationwide. In West Virginia, individuals 60 and older lost over $3 million to romance and other scams last year.
The FBI report said the romance scam occurs when “a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain the victim’s affection and confidence. The scammer uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and/or steal from the victim.”
Meg Selig writing in Psychology Today said the victims are frequently lonely individuals who are more vulnerable. “Romance scammers often succeed because victims want to believe they have found true love,” and those feelings help create a strong bond.
Selig quotes Dr. Cortney Warrant about the risk to the unguarded individual. “In essence, falling in love is like being addicted to your lover. It’s just when our relationships are going well, we don’t think of love addiction as a problem. In fact, it is blissful. The problem emerges when you feel addicted to someone that’s unhealthy for you.”
But by them, victims are often in too deep and are either unable or unwilling to see that they are being taken advantage of. They will ignore red flags and tune out family and friends who express concerns.
According to the FBI, the scammers often say they are in the military or working overseas. “That makes it easier to avoid meeting in person—and more plausible when they request money be sent overseas for a medical emergency or unexpected legal fee.”
Grandparent scams also fall into this category, reports the FBI. A loved one claims to be in trouble overseas and needs money immediately. “Over 450 victims (of individuals over 60) reported Grandparent scams (in 2021), with losses of $6.5 million.”
Here are some of the warning signs that Selig says individuals need to be aware of: You find yourself putting the online partner’s wishes ahead of your own wishes and comfort on a regular basis or you find yourself saying “yes” to things, small and large, with which you are uncomfortable.
The financial implications are significant. The FBI reports that the average victim lost over $18,000 in 2021, but over three-thousand victims lost more than $100,000 each. And these are the cases that are reported. Often individuals are too embarrassed to notify authorities they have been tricked in a romance scam.
If you or someone you know who is age 60 or older and may be a victim of financial fraud, you are encouraged to call the National Elder Fraud Hotline at 1-833-FRAUD-11 (1-833-372-8311).