Norm Jones didn’t know where to turn.
What he thought was a whirlwind romance had fallen apart. The woman he had been talking with almost every day for five months wasn’t who she said she was. The $250,000 he had invested at her encouragement, his life savings and retirement, was gone. He would have to sell the house.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to him. Jones, 54, spent his career working in telecommunications and cybersecurity in the Silicon Valley area. Yet, he had fallen for an internet scam that experts say has grown more potent — and appears increasingly connected to self-harm.
In March, emergency personnel found Jones unconscious in his bathroom after he attempted suicide.
“My dad thought I was dead,” he told NBC News. “So did my brother and everyone.”
Jones is doing better. He’s recovering and said he wanted to share his story about what cybersecurity experts and suicide prevention advocates say is an underreported and pernicious issue: romance scams.
“I’d be happy to help just one person in the world never go through what I went through,” he said.
Romance scams trace back centuries and have been a mainstay of internet tricksters. But some scammers have devised methods so personally brutal and financially devastating that self-harm is a growing concern for victims.
Scams that once bilked victims out of hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars through gift cards are now increasingly convincing them to move their investment and retirement accounts into phony investment schemes. Those schemes have been boosted by the rise of cryptocurrency as both a tempting way to get rich quick and also as a mechanism for scammers to move large amounts of cash in ways that are almost impossible to retrieve.
“To me, it’s a public health crisis that I don’t think we’re talking about,” said Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for AARP’s Fraud Watch Network.
While the organization doesn’t log suicidal threats or deaths as a specific statistic, it has become “pretty much a daily occurrence” to refer a victim to a suicide hotline, she said.
The scam has two phases: Gain a victim’s trust by cultivating a fake romantic relationship for weeks or months, then convince them to pour money into a scheme that makes it appear they’re getting richer. In reality, their money’s already gone.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center categorizes these rackets as investment scams, also sometimes called “pig butchering” scams. An FBI report found that victims reported losing a total of $3.3 billion in 2022, more than double the reported losses in 2021.
The Federal Trade Commission tallied a record $496 million from romance scam victims last year, a spokesperson said. The FTC and the FBI reports rely entirely on what victims report to them, meaning they’re likely undercounted. There’s little other authoritative figures on the scam including information on victims’ demographics.
In April, the Justice Department announced a rare victory: It had seized virtual currency worth about $112 million linked to romance investment scams.
Erin West, a deputy district attorney who heads the high technology crimes unit in Santa Clara County, California, said that romance scammers are becoming “more and more masterful” at bilking victims out of every possible dollar.
“We describe it as a spell being cast over these victims. Despite hours on end with their banker or their children or a law enforcement official, they can’t be talked out of this,” she said.
The effects on victims are also becoming more severe, West said.
“The desperation is incredible. And we are seeing more and more victims threatening suicide, experiencing suicide attempts, checking themselves into psychiatric facilities because they’re feeling suicidal,” she said.
Jones’ scammer, who used the name Aranya, first messaged him on Facebook in November. He let his guard down when he saw that she was already friends with several of his Facebook friends.
Though he preferred Signal, the messaging app of choice for much of the cybersecurity industry, he agreed with Aranya to mostly chat through text chats on Telegram, a messaging app known to be popular with scammers. They also occasionally talked on the phone.
Aranya quickly became his online girlfriend and a major part of his life. He found her beautiful and brilliant. She seemed to live a high-rolling, jet-setting life that she said she funded with crypto investments. He would take his phone and text with her as he hiked in Los Gatos and write songs for her they would sing together. All the while, she would push him to invest money through a crypto website, eventually convincing him to try to take out a loan against his house for more funds.
Jones finally became suspicious in February. They had made plans to meet in New York City: he had friends there and she said she had planned to stay in her uncle’s luxury apartment in Manhattan. But after he arrived, she changed her story, saying she was in Seattle, and he suspected something was very wrong.
By March, Jones was spiraling. His credit had tanked. He couldn’t get his money out of the crypto site. He filed a report with the FBI but received no response. He estimated he had lost more than $250,000 and owed penalty taxes for cashing out his 401(k)s and feared he wouldn’t be able to keep his house. On top of that, he felt humiliated and hurt that he could no longer trust Aranya.
Heidi Kar, a senior mental health and trauma advisor for the Education Development Center, a nonprofit group that oversees several suicide prevention programs, said that while it’s impossible to get nuanced data on the topic — suicides are already underreported, and most families don’t publicly reveal specifics of a victim’s motivation — romance investment scams combine two major causes for suicide.
“Two of the most common reasons people will go from just thinking about it to acting on it are romantic relationship dissolution — whether it was real or not — and threat of financial ruin,” she said. “And so, as these these types of scams increase, we have to expect that more people will die by suicide who have been impacted.”
The concerns about self-harm and romance scams come during what U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”
Ashley, 36, said she had no idea her father, Joe Bleibtrey, was ensnared in a romance investment scam until after he died. She pieced much of it together by looking through his phone after he died by suicide in January. As with Jones, Bleibtrey’s scammer introduced herself on Facebook and convinced him to move their conversation to Telegram.
For four months, a person whom Bleibtrey considered an online romantic partner convinced him to dump practically everything he had — his savings and both of his retirement accounts totaling around $500,000 — into a fake scheme that made it appear that he was making a fortune by investing in cryptocurrencies. He died by suicide soon after realizing the woman’s story wasn’t real and his savings were stolen.
“This person was fulfilling something for my dad in that romantic way that he wasn’t getting perhaps fulfilled in other ways and unfortunately, built enough trust for him to take this risk,” said Ashley, who requested that her last name not be used for professional reasons.
She said the fallout has been difficult to deal with as she tries to juggle her life, grieving for her father and her father’s debts.
“It’s not like a typical grief process when you have collectors calling you or coming after the estate or you’re dealing with court or trying to figure out taxes because, I mean, he owes a significant amount of taxes due to withdrawing from his IRA or Roth accounts,” she said. “You can’t just grieve.”
Jones is now focused on recovery. After months in a crisis center, he’s moved in with one of his best friends who lives in Gilroy. He’s selling his house to cover his debts and is working on healing, both mentally and physically, and spending time with his brother and father.
In April, Jones sent Aranya a graphic photo of his recovery and told her that’s where desperation from her scam drove him. The message is marked on Telegram as read and her account is still active, but Aranya didn’t respond.
“I’m accepting what happened a little better now,” he said. “All we can do is move forward.”
“My family knows and I know I’m going to survive. And I’m grateful to just be here.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.