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Romance scams bedevil law enforcement | #socialmedia | #hacking | #aihp



Jeanne Aikens was a widow in her late 60s when she found a new love. Or so she thought.

Aikens had nursed her husband through Parkinson’s disease until his
death a few years earlier, and she was ready to start dating again.
Aikens, a nursing manager at Boston Children’s Hospital, met a man
called “Logan” through a dating site in 2018 and found they had a shared
interest in running for fitness. Or so she thought.

Over a few months, they became friendly online, through text messages
and phone calls. “Logan” professed his love for her, and they planned
to meet in Boston, not far from her New Hampshire home. But first, he
needed money.

Spinning a tale of being delayed in Great Britain on a work trip and
needing cash, he persuaded Aikens to wire him money several
times—eventually totaling more than $200,000. Her family tried to warn
her, her banker questioned the withdrawals, a co-worker was aghast, but
Aikens stood by her love.

“I wasn’t worried about the funds because he always said he would pay
it back. He always agreed,” she said in a phone interview from her new
home in Arizona. “He asked me to send him a spreadsheet with an
accounting of all of the funds. What was I to worry about? I sent him a
spreadsheet.”

But eventually, the plot unraveled, leaving Aikens embarrassed,
ashamed and poorer. She hopes by telling her story she can help others
avoid similar circumstances.

She has plenty of company. The FBI reported
that romance scammers ripped off about $1 billion from would-be U.S.
lovers in 2021, up from $600 million the year before. It was the third
highest amount of scam losses reported by the FBI in 2021, behind email
account scams totaling $2.4 billion and investment fraud of $1.5
billion.

The FBI reported that the scammers use the illusion of a romantic
relationship to get into the heads of their victims and earn their trust
before asking for money. Sometimes this happens in a matter of months,
other times it takes longer, but the bottom line is that these fake
lovers are willing to invest time and energy in grooming their marks
because often the payoff is worth it. State attorneys general say
they’re likewise seeing a rise in romance scams, partially due to the
isolation brought on during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aikens said her scammer eventually was unmasked when the police chief
in her small New Hampshire town of Fremont—sent by her family—knocked
on her door with a picture of “Logan,” which turned out to have been
ripped off from someone else’s Facebook page. Even then, while she
stopped sending money, she refused to cut off all contact with him. She
was hoping to catch him, and contacted the New Hampshire attorney
general’s office. “Logan” was never found.

Attorneys general say they have little success at recovering money or
criminally charging romance scammers because they often are overseas
and out of their jurisdiction. The FBI has had some success, though
little in comparison to the amounts being stolen.

New Hampshire Assistant Attorney General Bryan Townsend said in a
phone interview that the scams have increased with the pandemic’s
isolation, but prosecuting them on the state level is difficult.

“One of the big things we face is the difficulty in prosecuting the
perpetrators of these scams because often they are overseas,” he said.
Often the cases are referred to the FBI, which occasionally can
criminally charge perpetrators. In September, the U.S. Department of
Justice announced financial crime charges
against 11 people in a romance fraud scheme tied to an international
organized crime syndicate originating in Nigeria. The cases are pending.

What the attorneys general in New Hampshire and elsewhere can do is
sound the alarm, dispel myths and help victims cope with the
disappointment and shame, partially by letting them know they are not
alone or stupid.

“There’s a misconception that these are individuals who suffer from
dementia; that’s not true,” Townsend said. “There’s a misconception that
they are all elderly; they really are not. We’ve seen romance scams for
people far younger than that.” What the victims do have in common is
that they are lonely, they are perusing dating sites in many cases, and
they have access to a fair amount of money, he said.

Sunny Mulligan Shea, a victim witness advocate for the New Hampshire
attorney general’s office, works with victims such as Aikens and others
both to help them through the romance scam crisis and to educate the
public.

“We’ve had people think they got married online,” she said in a phone
interview. “They got fake marriage papers. It’s very elaborate. I go
out to their homes and tell them how to make themselves safe.” And she
hates telling them that their love and money are now both gone.

“There’s profound sadness because I have broken their heart as well as their bank account,” she said.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, a Democrat, said he’s
noticed an uptick in romance scams in his state involving both male and
female victims. “It’s obvious how easy it is for a scammer to troll
social media, obituaries—you can figure out who’s recently lost a
spouse, who’s single, who’s looking for some love.”

The perpetrators groom their victims, he said, and then spring the
trap requesting money. Tong has no criminal jurisdiction over scammers
in another state or country, but he, like other attorneys general, works
with the FBI. He said the scope of the crimes is stunning.

“A woman in Connecticut corresponded with someone in Turkey; she lost
$100,000,” he said in a phone interview. “A guy corresponding with
someone in Dubai was asked for $6,000. He didn’t do it, but he came
close.”

Tong and Townsend are among a host of attorneys general who put out
news releases and public statements to warn people about the scams,
trying to head them off before they start.

“So much of it is never reported because it’s very embarrassing to
people,” Tong said. “If you are an older American, you don’t want to
tell your children you got scammed looking for love.”

Aikens’ relationship with her daughter fell apart over the romance scam, and they have not reconciled, she said.

In New York, the state Assembly passed a bill this month that would
require financial institutions to warn consumers about the potential
scams, such as romance fraud, whenever they see an electronic funds
transfer set up from a consumer’s account to another individual.

State Rep. Al Stirpe, a Democrat who introduced the bill,
said the electronic transfers warnings are not just aimed at romance
fraud, though that is one aspect the bill addresses. Another popular
scam the bill tries to address involves targeting grandparents. In those
cases, the older person gets a call alleging their grandchild has been
arrested and needs bail money. The grandparent is instructed to send the
funds electronically.

Stirpe said the intent of his bill is to “make sure when people are
doing electronic transfers, there’s a warning to make sure you know who
you are sending money to.” He said the bill would require a “clear,
concise” warning before an electronic transfer is allowed to take place.
That warning would tell the account holder to double check the
recipient of the funds.

A somewhat similar bill has been passed in the state Senate, but no progress has been made in reconciling the two, he said.

Aikens still has emotional bruises from her dealings with the
scammer, but, in terms of love, her life is looking up. She married a
man from a nearby town in New Hampshire a few months ago, and they
retired together to Arizona.

“He’s sitting next to me,” she reported in the phone interview with Stateline.

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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