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Romance Scams Targeting Seniors: How Can You Protect Yourself?

Let’s hear it for the government; it just busted a criminal fraud ring targeting lonely older people.

After a two-and-a-half-year investigation, the Department of Justice arrested fourteen people and indicted another sixty-six External link disclaimer. The targets were of a sprawling Nigerian Romance Scam External link disclaimer that had bilked victims out of more than $46 million by the time of the indictments and arrests.

The news left a lot of people asking, “How could so many people be so naïve? Why would you send so much money to a stranger“?

The answer is simple.

  • Have you ever paid for a date’s dinner because you can, and it makes you feel good?
  • Have you ever offered to help out a good friend who needed a few bucks in an unexpected jam?
  • Have you ever wanted to get together with someone…but they didn’t have the money, and you did?

Romance scams take advantage of our best impulses. They rely on our innate human desire to trust and connect. They turn generous, kind, loving, goodhearted impulses against us. Internet romance scams work because greedy people use time-tested lies External link disclaimer to lure in their targets and elaborate money-laundering apparatuses to snatch and “lose” (forever) victims’ money.

These rings are sophisticated and they have perfected the craft. Vulnerable individuals are nearly defenseless against these tactics.

Meet the 71-Year-Old Anonymous Hero of the Nigerian Romance Scam FBI Bust

The woman who broke the Nigerian Romance Scam ring with the FBI is a hero, not a victim. She was trusting, but she was not wrong.

To protect yourself against scams, you cannot, should not, and must not cut yourself off from others; you need to become aware of how they work. That is why “F.K.” is a hero. She exposed how these scams work.

At age 71, F.K., began communicating through a social media group with “Captain Terry Garcia,” a “military man” she’d met who claimed he was stationed in Syria. Unfortunately, Garcia did not actually exist. “He” was a part of a global scam ring. He explained early on why he could not speak on the phone—military regulations did not allow it. After a month of cultivating F.K.’s trust through strictly platonic emails conversation, “Garcia” then made romantic gestures; F.K. responded.

Then “Garcia” told F.K. he had “found” a bag of diamonds in Syria, and he and friends had a plan to smuggle them out; would F.K. send cash to help? Then an “associate” got in touch to tell F.K. Garcia had been hurt, but the diamonds were safe.

By the end of the scam, F.K. had lost more than $200,000—much of which she had borrowed from friends and family.

“Garcia’s” associates had squeezed more than thirty-five payments from her and even threatened to have her arrested if she stopped paying. It was financially devastating, heartbreaking, embarrassing.

Most people would have slunk away. Instead, F.K. told her story to law enforcement, and we now know exactly what happened. Because of her willingness to go to the authorities, further scams from this ring need not happen to other seniors.

How to Fight Romance Scammers: Cut Contact, Report the Scammer, Warn Others

The Department of Justice stood behind F.K. and said clearly: Nobody deserves to be scammed. When predatory groups of individuals get together to use our own nature against us, exploit trust, and steal vast amounts of cash External link disclaimer, the responsibility falls on them. Not on victims.
The FTC advises the following steps if you believe you’re dealing with an online scammer:

  1. End all contact immediately.
  2. Describe your concerns and the whole situation to someone whose judgment you trust. (Also, if family or friends have said they are concerned, worried, or noticed “red flags,” try not to become immediately defensive; they know and care about you, and may be noticing some early romance scam red flags.)
  3. Take advantage of reverse-image search External link disclaimer to see if a new love interest’s photo is being used on other profiles with other names—that’s the reddest of flags.
  4. Use the internet to see if others have been scammed by people using the same stories External link disclaimer.
  5. If you or a loved one has fallen victim to a scammer, never be reluctant, embarrassed, or afraid to report it—especially if the scammer has threatened you. Contact law enforcement or file a complaint External link disclaimer with the Federal Trade Commission.<

Have you ever encountered a would-be romance scammer, either online or in the real world? How did you handle it? What would you tell other seniors about how to recognize and protect themselves against systematic emotional and financial abuse?

This article was first published in GreatCall Currents.

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