A woman who lost over €75,000 to a romance scam has called for more awareness to ensure ageing women do not fall victim to scammers who prey on loneliness and the need for love.
Carmen*, a divorcee in her early 60s, gave away her life savings as she fell for what she thought was the man of her dreams, only to eventually find out it was a scammer behind a computer manipulating a vulnerable woman.
“I am not brave for speaking up. I am still too ashamed to show my face. But sharing my story is something I need to do – to stop other women from going through this,” she tells Times of Malta.
She is not alone. Romance scams have been on the increase in Malta, especially in the last two years. Over the past five years, the police received 37 reports of romance scams with victims being defrauded of just under €1 million between them. So far this year, the police received 13 romance scam reports.
According to the police, between 2019 and September 2023, the total losses incurred by the 37 victims was €911,000, with the minimum sum being that of €168 and the highest being approximately €550,000. Out of the 37 reports, 11 alleged scammers were charged in court.
“Society lacks empathy. I know my story will get lots of comments like: ‘serves her right’. But this is not a victimless crime. The common thread among victims is loneliness, social isolation, losing your looks. The perpetrator offers a ray of sunshine in a very dark place,” Carmen says.
Falling in love with a lie
Carmen’s story dates back almost five years. She has been alone for many years and longed for a romantic connection. So she opened an account on the dating app Connecting Singles where she described herself and the kind of man she was looking for.
Soon after, she was approached by a man she considered handsome, intelligent and articulate.
He told her he was going to work on an oil rig as he owned a company that provided scuba diving services on a rig in Abu Dhabi and that, once he arrived, he would be available to chat.
They started a relationship via WhatsApp – even though the dating app recommended staying on the app. He said he was Italian and lived in the US, which was why his English was good. He gave her his name and the details of his ex-wife. He sent her photos and even a copy of his passport.
Although they spoke often, he was never able to make a video call on grounds that the signal on the rig was poor. They planned to meet face-to-face when he left the rig in three months’ time and she bought a plane ticket to Abu Dhabi.
“We developed this relationship very quickly because I was lonely and I thought he was lonely on a rig. We talked a lot. I really thought I was in an intimate relationship with this guy. He made me laugh. I never thought of him as a man living in Nigeria, but as an Italian with an engineering degree.
“I was over the moon. I lost weight. I wasn’t interested in stuffing my face with food. I wanted to look slim when I met him. I was laughing a lot. People were actually seeking my company. I was up.”
After a few months, the money topic entered their conversations. It started when he said he was having problems making a bank transfer between his accounts from the rig and asked her to access his accounts from Malta.
He started pushing me to sell my house as he needed the money– *Carmen
He gave her a link and all the details she needed to access his purported bank accounts. She did as he asked and realised he had about 7 million in his account.
After some time, he told her he was having problems making a transfer to his mother’s care home in Italy and asked her to make it from her account. He would pay her back.
She followed his instructions because she trusted him.
“As the months went on, lo and behold there was a blowback from one of the pipes his company had laid, and a man died and another was in hospital. He had to stay. I cancelled my ticket and we planned to meet a month later,” she says.
Meanwhile, more money requests came in. He said he had to make a payment for tax arrears and it was a problem to do so from the rig.
Again, she helped out.
By the end she transferred €78,000 to bank accounts in Italy and Spain over some four transactions. She even got calls asking her to send a copy of her passport – which she did.
“I went in very deep, very quickly. I started imagining the life we’d have together. You are not dealing with the rational, you’re dealing with the emotional. My internal voice used to accuse myself because my radar was always up. It used to tell me: ‘I need to let go, not everyone is out to get me’. Emotionally, I really wanted this to be true, so I did let my guard down. I let him in under the radar,” she says.
Alarm bells start ringing
Slowly, the alarm bells started ringing. A friend found some inconsistencies in personal information he had provided.
She told her friend about him but never mentioned the money part. It felt odd. “In real life a man doesn’t ask a woman for money. I wanted to protect him and myself from being perceived as a total idiot by my friends,” she says.
When the time came for them to meet the second time, he claimed there was another incident on the rig and he cancelled again.
“I thought to myself: once is believable, but two? I started to think this was really odd. My heart was going: ‘oh no, oh no’. I had sent a lot of money and was feeling really stupid,” she said.
Doubts infiltrated her mind. She asked to meet online and asked him to refund at least some of the money. He said he could not do so as he was stuck on the rig. But then she recalled he had mentioned leaving the rig to go visit the injured workman in hospital.
“I started to understand there were lies. I went to the police to report. They told me to disconnect from him but, that way, they would never get hold of him. So, I stayed in touch for another week. Now that I knew it was a scam, I felt physically ill.
“He started pushing me to sell my house as he needed the money. I confronted him and told him I knew how this was going to end. It got really nasty. He threatened to disclose what happened to my loved ones. Thank God, I was never one who sent naked photos of myself which he could use against me. I know it happened to others,” she said.
Like a blow to the stomach
“I felt like someone hit me with a rolling pin straight to the stomach. I had a sinking feeling at the realisation of my vulnerability, my age. Everything came crashing down. It took me time to accept that these are the realities of people my age and I need to deal with it, or crumble,” Carmen says.
She went to therapy and opened up with a supportive friend. She never told her two daughters what had happened.
“The money was part of my life savings to be used to live a more comfortable retirement. Now I have to work to supplement my pension. That was money for the comfort of my old age and to buy things for my grandchildren,” she says.
Years passed and Carmen is not hopeful she will ever see her life savings again. But she fails to understand why local and European police fail to crack down harder by working together.
“At the end of the day I transferred money into real bank accounts in Italy and Spain. Someone in those banks allowed someone to open an account using false documents. There was a breach of due diligence,” she said, pointing out she had all the documents in hand, which she has passed on to the police.
Picking up the pieces
Meanwhile, Carmen focused on picking herself back up and on spreading the word to create awareness to avoid more women being victimised by romance scams.
“To get out of this sad place you need to understand your motivation and your needs. We all grow older, and we need to come to terms with it. The alternative is an early death. Try to see the glass as half full.
“I went through the stages of grief and I came to acceptance. I say to myself: ‘how could you be so stupid?’ But I also say: ‘I’m a human being and I let my guard down because I wanted to be in a relationship’.
“I now don’t care about attracting another partner. Something inside me has shut down,” she says.
If he’ll never show his face on a live call, it’s because he is hiding his face. If he asks for money – run
Looking back, the signs were there. The dating app asked people to stay on the app and the scammer pulled her off it and then “refused” to show his face because it would blow his cover.
She later learnt that the passport he showed her was stolen and belonged to an Italian child. She learnt to look for the security lock on secure banking websites. She now realises how he used what she told him to connect with her: she told him she missed her mother who passed away, prompting him to claim he had a mum in a retirement home which she helped pay for.
“This an evil game with all the trump cards in the perpetrator’s hands. The institutions look away. Society lacks empathy. Everyone’s hands are tied but I don’t believe it is really so. I believe there is no will to follow through because there are more pressing issues or priorities for the institutions.”
In the absence of real and effective help after the crime, the only logical shield is prevention – constant awareness.
“So my dear sisters in romance scam: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is not true. If your friends are expressing doubt, listen to them. If he’ll never show his face on a live call, it’s because he is hiding his face. If he asks for money – run.”
*Name and personal details have been changed.