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Connecticut and federal officials warn of romance scams echoing ‘Tinder Swindler’ – Hartford Courant | #lovescams | #military | #datingscams | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | #match.com | #dating

Swindlers who prey on the lonely and lovelorn have drained life savings from victims in Connecticut and throughout the nation, state and federal officials warned.

Romance scams have cost victims in the U.S. $1.3 billion in the last five years, and the crooks’ profits have been rising. Recent convictions in a federal trial in Bridgeport reveal the yield in cash, cryptocurrency and gifts available to heartless grifters, authorities say.

State Attorney General William Tong in a news release referenced the federal case and a Netflix documentary, “The Tinder Swindler,” which tells the story of a man who allegedly fleeced women out of millions using the Tinder dating app. While the scope and scale of the depicted scam was exceptional, dating app cons are common, state and federal law enforcement officials say.

Scammers strike up relationships, earn their victims’ trust and persuade them to send money. The romance ripoff artists also use social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook.

“Be hypervigilant when a stranger contacts you online and asks you to share personal information and send money,” Tong said. “It’s most likely a scam.”

He cited complaints sent to his office in the last two years. One Connecticut woman said she lost $100,000 to a scammer she met on the dating app Bumble. She and the scammer communicated for several months before he claimed to be stranded in Turkey and in debt. The woman sent him $100,000 in wire transfers and BitCoin before realizing it was a scam, Tong said.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a gullible person, but I was manipulated,” the woman was quoted as saying in the news release.

Earlier this year, a man told Tong’s office he was asked to send $6,300 to a woman he connected with on a dating app. The woman said she was traveling in Dubai and needed the money for an emergency. The man recognized the scam and did not pay, the release said.

Tho Vu, who spent nearly her entire life savings after being tricked by a crypto scammer posing as a man named Ze Zhao on the dating app Hinge, in Gaithersburg, Md., Feb. 16, 2022. Romance scams — the term for online scams that involve feigning romantic interest to gain a victim’s trust — have increased in the pandemic.

Typically, romance scammers create profiles on dating websites that include false personal details such as the death of a spouse or military service to gain victims’ trust. Then they ask for money for medical or business emergencies, travel expenses to see the victim and other fictional purposes.

Dating scams are among the costliest cons. In 2021, victims lost $547 million, up 80% since 2020, the FTC reported. The median individual reported loss in 2021 was $2,400.

Reports about romance scams increased for every age group in 2021, according to the agency. For people ages 18-29, the number of reports increased more than tenfold from 2017 to 2021. But the reported median loss increased with age: people 70 and older reported the highest individual median losses at $9,000, compared to $750 for the 18 to 29 age group, the FTC reported.

In mid-February, a federal jury in Bridgeport found three men guilty of bilking millions of dollars from mostly elderly victims through romance and lottery scams. Farouq Fasasi, 27, Rodney Thomas Jr., 31, and Ralph Pierre, 32, were convicted of conspiracy, fraud and money laundering offenses, federal authorities said.

From August 2015 to March 2020, the men persuaded victims around the nation to send money, gifts and personal details. Victims mailed cash, money orders and checks to various addresses in Connecticut. They also wired or deposited money into bank accounts in the state controlled by the swindlers, authorities said.

Fasasi, Thomas, Pierre and other co-conspirators lived together on Sherman Avenue in New Haven, where many packages containing cash, checks and money orders were delivered. To help launder the money, Pierre formed a fake charity called “Global Protection Foundation” and opened four bank accounts in the fake charity’s name, authorities said.

The scams defrauded more than 200 victims across the U.S. of more than $5 million, officials said. Many of the victims were elderly and vulnerable, and some victims lost their life savings. One Connecticut victim lost more than $1 million.

A jury found Fasasi and Thomas guilty of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and mail fraud. Fasasi also was found guilty of three counts of money laundering. Pierre was found guilty of conspiracy to commit money laundering and money laundering. Sentencing is set for May 10.

“These verdicts will help to heal the many individuals who gave thousands of dollars to these predators,” U.S. Attorney Leonard Boyle said. “I encourage all to resist falling victim to these schemes and not send any money to anyone you haven’t met in person. Instead, call your local police department, or 833-FRAUD-11, for assistance and to report these crimes.”

Some tips to avoid becoming the victim of a romance scam:

Never send money or gifts to a love interest you haven’t met in person. Scammers will contact you on dating apps and request money, sometimes in the form of cryptocurrency or gift cards.

Be wary of someone you’ve never met professing their love quickly. Tinder calls this “lovebombing” on its tips to avoid romance scams — bit.ly/3M7dUwF.

Scammers will often claim to be overseas or in the military and have emergencies in which they need cash immediately.

Scammers may study information people share online and then pretend to have common interests, according to the FTC. Details they share about themselves will always include built-in excuses for not meeting in person. For example, many reportedly claim to be serving overseas in the military or working on an offshore oil rig.

If you suspect you might be scammed, stop communicating with the person immediately. Seek advice from someone you trust, like a friend or family member.

If you’ve been contacted by someone you don’t know online, take time to verify the person’s identity and think through what you’re being asked. Does it makes sense? Search to see if other people have reported similar stories as scams.

Reverse image search (bit.ly/3MaGInT) the person’s dating profile picture to see if it belongs to a different person or account. If you find the picture and it’s associated with another person or the details don’t add up, it’s likely a scam.

Victims are urged to contact local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigations Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov. Complainants also may call Tong’s office at 860-808-5420, or file a complaint with the office at dir.ct.gov/ag/complaint. Scams also may be reported to the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or at ftc.gov/complaint.

Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at jleavenworth@courant.com


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