Former prosecuting attorney and current volunteer AARP fraud speaker Lynn Park joins producer/host Coralie Chun Matayoshi to discuss how to avoid getting caught in a romance scam and what to do if it happens to you.
Q. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and lots of people are looking for love, but if you aren’t careful, you could get caught in a romance scam.
We all want love, but we just have to be careful, especially when meeting strangers and that’s true whether you meet someone in person or online. Scammers prey on emotions. They want you to think with your heart and not your head. And humans are social creatures, we all need to have friends and we all would like to be in love so greedy people with no heart will always be looking for someone to take advantage of. People may not realize this, but romance scammers are generally not some guy in a basement with a computer looking through matchmaking sites and social media for victims. Many of them are part of organized criminal gangs in other countries like South Africa and Nigeria and they set up fake profiles on social media sites making comments on your posts and trying to engage with you.
Last year AARP brough Kate Kleinert and AARP Fraud Watch Network Director Kathy Stokes to Hawaii to talk about romance scams. Kate shared her story and it’s just heartbreaking. Kate’s very brave. She shared her story so that other people can learn about these scams and avoid what happened to her. Kate’s a widow, loves dogs, and wasn’t looking for romance. All she did was accept a friend request on social media from a man who said he was working as a doctor in Iraq. They started texting and that led to phone calls and as Kate started falling for the man, he started asking to borrow money. This is how insidious these scammers are – in their conversations, the man who called himself Tony, asked her to start looking for houses because he was going to marry her, and buy a house together. He introduced her to people he said were his children and they started calling her mother. Many times, he asked for money for his children. She ended up sending him $39,000 and only stopped when he told her he was coming to visit her and never showed up. His excuse was that he was arrested at the airport and needed more money to get out of jail. That’s when she started realizing she had been scammed. But her story gets worse. Because she had sent him all her money, she couldn’t afford repairs to her air conditioning and heating system in her house. She was using a portable air conditioner to keep cool, and it caught fire. Her house burned down and her dogs died in the fire.
Q. AARP has a Fraud Watch Network that anyone can access, not just those over 65?
Yes, anyone can contact the Fraud Watch Network for help. In Kate’s case, volunteers were able to help her recognize what happened to her and because she was willing to share her story and warn others, AARP has been able to support her and help her recover. If you or someone you know has been a victim of fraud or if you want to learn more about how to avoid becoming a victim, you can visit the AARP Fraud Watch network website at https://aarp.org/fraudwatch or call 877-908-3360. AARP also has volunteer speakers who will do presentations for groups of 12 or more at places like senior centers, churches, and rotary clubs.
Q. Did they catch the person who took Katie’s money?
Kate told her story at an AARP conference of fraud investigators, and they were actually able to track down the person who claimed to be Tony, the surgeon in Iraq. It turns out that he was part of a criminal gang in South Africa and the members of the group work full time on scamming people all over the world. They had other gang members play the part of Tony’s children and they used computer software to try and identify and contact people who could be victims. They are professionals and know how to romance people online and start making money off them. Kate was actually able to talk to the man who took her money. He admitted that he didn’t send her real pictures of himself and then he had the gall to ask her for more money. They haven’t been able to arrest him yet, but they are working on it.
Q. That’s part of the problem right, people don’t know how big of a problem these scammers are and so we don’t put the resources into fighting fraud that we should?
One of the things we want to emphasize is that people who fall for romance and other scams are not stupid. They are victims and the people who prey on them are professionals. They do this for a living, and they are the bad guys, not the victims. We have to stop blaming the victim. And victims have to stop blaming themselves. This is why people don’t report the fraud and it’s why criminals can get away with fraud – because people don’t report it and why fraud doesn’t seem to be as big a crime as it is. Kate was afraid to tell her family what happened to her, but when she did, they supported, comforted, and helped her get back on her feet. If someone confides in you that they have been the victim of a scam, if you’re a true friend you need to be supportive of them too and help them understand that they are the victim and they didn’t bring it upon themselves. The criminals are the ones who should be suffering, and we can’t go after the criminals if people don’t report the crime.
Q. Do you have some tips for people to recognize romance scams?
Scammers troll for victims on social media, text messaging, messaging apps and dating apps where strangers try to talk to you. Don’t believe everything people post. Check out the photos that a suitor sends you. Google has something called a reverse image search – it can tell you if a photo is an image that someone can get on the internet or if it’s really the person they claim to be. Also, be cautious of anyone who quickly declares their love for you or asks you to move your relationship to a personal level. Be wary of anyone who asks for money, gift cards, or personal information. Be suspicious of anyone who seems too good to be true. Don’t reveal too much personal information in a dating profile or to someone you’ve chatted with only online. Scammers can exploit details like your last name or where you work to manipulate you or to commit identity theft. And never send money to someone you haven’t met in person.
Q. What other romance scams are there?
We’re seeing romance scams where instead of asking you directly for money, the person trying to befriend or romance you tells you about investing in cryptocurrency or forex – trading in foreign currencies. So they don’t directly ask you for money but they start telling you about how they made money and ask you to invest in what they’ve invested in, and the investments turn out to be scams. They explain how to open a cryptocurrency account and then when you put money into it, they take it and you don’t realize you’ve been scammed until later. The same thing happens with forex — foreign exchange trading. It’s a complicated investment and if you’re not familiar with it, they’ll put your money in an account that they have access to, and you don’t. So, you’ve been essentially tricked into giving your money away.
To learn more about this subject, tune into this video podcast.
Disclaimer: this material is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The law varies by jurisdiction and is constantly changing. For legal advice, you should consult a lawyer that can apply the appropriate law to the facts in your case.