On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love and finding a connection with someone special. Unfortunately, a person’s desire for true love can leave them vulnerable to the “Sweetheart Scam,” a type of scam where the perpetrator targets lonely widowers or divorcees looking for companionship, only to bilk them out of their life savings. In fact, the number one target of sweetheart scams is usually men and women over the age of 60.
The scammers are experts at flattery and gaining trust—even emotional intimacy—with the intent to get someone to let her or his guard down enough to take advantage of them. They find their victims in a variety of ways, from dating websites, to trolling locations such as grocery stores, hospital cafeterias or even parking lots where they might find a vulnerable target.
Scammers will take plenty of time contacting and courting potential victims that they have met. After several months of friendship—even a perceived romantic relationship—the criminal will ask the victim for money for a business venture, an operation or a medical procedure for a family member, etc.
The number one way that Sweetheart Scammers find victims is through online dating websites. This way, they can easily falsify their identity and charm an unsuspecting person. But there are some key warning signs that can tip you off to a potential scam:
- If the person claims to be from the United States, but is currently traveling, living or working abroad
- If he/she claims to be recently widowed
- Tells you how successful they are, but has spelling and other errors in their correspondence
- Talks about “destiny” or “fate” in meeting you
- Sends you flowers or other gifts
A recent example happened right here in Maricopa County. In 2013, a woman in her mid-50s befriended a man online who claimed to be a businessman living in Nigeria. The online friendship quickly evolved into phone calls and the relationship grew. She claims never to have met him in person.
The “boyfriend” talked her into accepting checks from various people and taking them to deposit into her bank account. She would often deposit a large check one day and on that same day withdraw half, then the next day she would withdraw the other half before the banks would catch that the checks were fraudulent.
At his request, she would also allow others to transfer or deposit money into this account. Sometimes she would transfer funds from this account into other accounts and/or take out cash. She would regularly wire money from her account to the boyfriend in Nigeria.
During the year that they “dated,” she had wire transferred close to $50,000 to her Nigerian boyfriend. The bank was able to recover $17,000 that was pending a wire transfer. The bank at one time explained to the female that she is falling victim to a fraud scheme; the female wouldn’t believe it and continued to claim that the man in Nigeria was her boyfriend. She was able to avoid prosecution, but someone in a similar situation could have been charged with fraud and theft, both Class 2 felonies.
Another, fairly common method happens when a scammer seeks out a vulnerable, and possibly isolated, elderly man by offering to make him a home cooked meal or help with household chores. Once she has established a “caring” friendship with the victim, she will claim to be in desperate need of money for a family crisis or for a false illness or medical need. Once the victim has given the fake friend the money, she will disappear from the victim’s life. Often the victim does not know the suspect’s true name or identity. The best protection for family members of vulnerable adults is to stay in touch with the family member regularly and question any new “friendships” in his/her life.
In many cases, family members may discover that their loved one is being scammed but the victim is so convinced that the relationship is real, it is challenging for them to believe or admit that they have been conned. The sad reality is that the victim believes that they are in a committed relationship; the only commitment in this relationship is the criminal’s commitment to get as much money as possible from the victim.
This is a crime and we encourage you to report it immediately to your local police department, or to one of the agencies below:
Arizona Attorney General’s Office
Federal Trade Commission
Area Agency on Aging