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What is a romance scam? What is catfishing? | #datingscams | #lovescams | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | #match.com | #dating


It started with a friend request on Facebook in February. The handsome Army officer stationed abroad liked Alicia Bultez’s profile and wanted to be friends. She accepted.

Single for seven years, the 81-year-old Bultez was lonely. She craved companionship.

“The walls just don’t talk to you,” she said in the living room of the Santaquin home she shares with her aunt and two cousins, where her 10-year-old Pomeranian, Muffin Ann, excitedly scurried around and pictures and a sculpture of Jesus are placed among the Christmas decorations.

Bultez was flattered that a man in his 60s took interest in her. They messaged back and forth, shared their likes and dislikes, talked about their families, exchanged photos. Right up front, they both agreed they would be totally honest with each other. A romance developed over the next few months. They planned to get married when he returned to the States in August.

“I thought wow. I really liked the way he made me feel. I felt loved. After having three divorces, and not feeling loved, to have someone really love me and care about me and want to do things for me, I was all open for it,” Bultez said, whose main source of income is Social Security.

Before he returned from overseas, he told her a “portfolio” he was sending home got hung up in customs. He asked her to send $1,500 to a “diplomat” in Philadelphia who was helping him get it through. She rounded up the money and sent it. Then he told her customs needed another $5,000. She withdrew the money from her small life savings and sent it. But it didn’t stop there. He asked for $40,000. She told him she’d given all she could.

A check for $95,200 arrived on her doorstep a week or so later. He told her to deposit the money in an IRA at her bank and then send him $40,000. She found out the check bounced when her Latter-day Saint ward Relief Society president insisted they go to the bank together a few days later.

“When they told me that at the bank, I just fell apart,” Bultez said, recalling how a teller “just held me and I cried.”

It was with the help of her ecclesiastical leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that Bultez learned she was being scammed. They brought in the police. They told her never to contact the Army officer again, and she hasn’t. But it tore her up inside.

Alicia Bultez poses for a photo at her home in Santaquin on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. She was the victim of two different scams.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“I was in such denial and I was hurt and I was angry and I felt all these emotions,” she said as she teared up. “I just put it in the Lord’s hands because there’s nothing more I could do about it.”

Bultez is willing to talk about what happened to her, hoping it will prevent others from scrolling into the same trap.

“It’s horrific that people prey on people like that,” said Katie Hass, director of the Utah Division of Consumer Protection. “But I applaud her for overcoming whatever shame she felt to share her story so that other people don’t fall victim.”

Sadly, Bultez’s story is a familiar one.

“We do see a lot of romance scams. I think one of the reasons why we see a lot of that, and the surgeon general talked about this, is we have a loneliness epidemic,” Hass said, adding it’s not only women but men who get pulled into those bogus relationships.

“I think our generation, I’m a generation Xer, we have to take some ownership of the fact that our senior citizens are feeling lonely and they’re not as connected. … We have to recognize that the walls don’t talk to them.”

Bultez’s online romance with the Army officer had all the elements of catfishing, the act of creating a false identity to lure people into relationships. Scammers frequently create bogus profiles on dating or other social networking sites to find their victims. Often, they claim to live far away, maybe saying they’re traveling for business or are in the military. That makes it easier to avoid meeting in person — and more plausible when they ask for money to be sent overseas for a medical emergency or unexpected legal fee.

Each year, millions of older Americans are the targets of scams and consumer fraud, and scammers are becoming more sophisticated with new schemes popping up all the time.

Estimates of how much money people 60 and older lose to cyber fraud each year vary widely. Based on reports to its Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2022, the FBI put the number at $3.1 billion, including 7,166 victims of romance/confidence scams who lost $419 million. Victims ages 30-39 were the largest group reporting fraud, but the greatest dollar loss was incurred by people 60 and older.

In Utah, 741 people over age 60 lost a total of $27.6 million to fraud, according to the report.

A recent AARP study found older Americans lose $28.3 billion annually to all types of financial exploitation, with $20.3 billion being stolen by friends, family and caregivers and $8 billion by strangers.

A Federal Trade Commission report released in October showed older adults continued to report higher individual median dollar losses than younger adults, and the disparity remained particularly large among people 80 and over compared to younger adults.

The Utah Department of Commerce launched a campaign last summer warning people about romance scams, catfishing and other types of fraud. The FTC also has videos and information on how to avoid being scammed.

Hass said she doesn’t want to discourage people from finding love, but there are some early red flags to be aware of in online relationships:

  • A person refuses to meet you in person or on video conferencing like FaceTime or Zoom.
  • A person says they’re overseas on business or in the military.
  • A person starts asking for money.

Con artists know there’s a lot of shame with romance scams and other types of fraud. “They know that you’re not going to turn to a trusted person and go, ‘Are these facts checking out?’ because you’re going to be embarrassed,” Hass said.

She recommends always talking to a trusted friend before making any decisions in those relationships.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

Bultez fell victim to both a romance scam and catfishing. But it didn’t end there.

In October, she received a text from her second cousin in California urging her to participate in a government grant program. She could get $50,000, $100,000, even $300,000 or $400,000 if she called this lawyer. She contacted him. Although she wanted to go for the smallest amount, he told her she was approved for $300,000 and couldn’t change it.

“It’s all legit. I won’t do anything to harm you. I’ll help you,” the lawyer told her.

But she had to pay taxes and fees to get the money. Bultez overnighted $17,000 in cash to an address in Tennessee. It depleted her savings. She has had to get a second mortgage and a couple of bank loans.

Bultez eventually called her second cousin, who told her the text didn’t come from her and she would never do that, adding there’s no such thing as free money.

“That money’s gone. It’s history. I had a pretty good life savings. Not a lot but I had enough to survive, do what I needed to do. I do not believe in going into debt. I don’t pay interest and I don’t pay late fees because I can’t afford them. I always pay the Lord first (in tithing) and I put some in my savings and the rest I live on,” Bultez said.

The offer of free money seemed real to Bultez. The lawyer even swore on his father’s grave he wasn’t playing games and the program was legal.

“I thought how sacrilegious. How can you be this kind of a man and pray on your father’s grave that you are legitimate? It made me sick,” she said.

Bultez has found getting new bank accounts, credit cards, email and phone overwhelming. She reached out to her church leaders for support. “I felt like I was drowning,” she said. “I couldn’t keep my head above water.”

A trusting soul and a softy for people in need, Bultez has lost some faith in humanity over the past year.

“I don’t know who to trust,” she said. “Can I trust you?”

merlin_3010445.jpg

Alicia Bultez talks about the pain of being the victim of a romance scam at her home on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The Federal Trade Commission suggests helping stop scammers by reporting suspicious profiles or messages to the dating app or social media platform. Then, tell the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. If you think you have been the victim of a scam, you can report it to the FBI at 1-800-225-5324 or tips.fib.gov. Learn more at ftc.gov/romancescams.



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