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When Words With Friends Turns Ugly

If romance scammers play, you risk losing big

spinner image Words with Friends mobile app
Sharaf Maksumov / Alamy Stock Photo

You might think it's fine to instant message others when playing Words With Friends. The popular online game traces its roots to Scrabble, the hit board game that debuted in 1938.

Be very careful. The strangers you meet on what players call “WWF” may not be real friends. In fact, they may be romance scammers.

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Early in 2018, a 75-year-old woman living near Portland, Oregon, began trading messages with a man on the WFF app. She was lonely. He was friendly — and seemed interesting, saying he was a native of Italy and worked on an oil rig near Texas. After a month of increasingly intimate chats online and over the phone, he hit her up for iTunes cards worth between $5 and $25. He lied, saying he used them to call his children; the cards actually are used for movies and music, and are a popular currency among bad actors.

Promises, promises

He promised to pay her back with interest. But as their digital relationship grew, his emergencies — and pleas for funds — kept coming. Over eight or nine months she parted with her life savings, about $137,000, by buying him gift cards and sending bank wire transfers. Not until he urged her to sell her jewelry and her house did she realize that it was all an elaborate hoax, as some of her friends had warned.

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Washington County (Oregon) Sheriff's Detective Patrick Altiere.
Courtesy of Patrick Altiere

After the woman reported her loss, Detective Patrick Altiere, 45, a 16-year veteran of the Washington County (Oregon) Sheriff's Office, stepped in to investigate. He tells AARP that he spends much of his time investigating romance scams and, in the case at hand, there is little hope the woman will recover her money. “We're not catching these people and they are not going to jail,” he says. The fraudster in the case used an alias, is probably overseas and the photos he sent her were not his — they were stolen from the internet.

More than $100 million lost to romance scams

The Oregon woman is not alone. In 2018, people lost $143 million to romance scams, the Federal Trade Commission says.

That WWF is haunted by hustlers is not surprising. Zynga, the San Francisco-based company that created it, did not respond to requests for comment for this story but offers online tips on how to block other users and report abuse.

Altiere says romance frauds have much in common. “The people who are targeted are afflicted with loneliness,” he says. Some have infrequent contact with relatives or live in care facilities. Victims “really want to believe these people are living exciting lives … working on oil rigs, traveling through Africa.” Such tall tales are a ruse to avoid meeting in person. An ironclad rule to avoid being fleeced: Never send money to a virtual love interest whom you haven't met in person.

"Loneliness is insipid and does crazy things to people,” the detective says, “and makes them do things they wouldn't normally do."

Victims can be in denial, too. In another case he's probing, a woman in her 60s sent Bitcoin, a virtual currency difficult to trace, to a man she met on WWF. Her family contacted the detective and together they staged an intervention that “finally convinced her that it's a scam,” he says, but the family still doesn't know how much money she's lost.

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His mother met a stranger

At the University of Southern California (USC), digital strategist Brad Berens grew interested in WWF scams when his mother, whom he calls “nobody's fool,” mentioned an odd experience while playing. She met “Owen,” who described himself as a single father toiling on an off-shore oil rig near Istanbul.

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Digital Strategist Brad Berens, whose mother was contacted by a scammer playing WWF.
Courtesy of Brad Berens

Berens is with the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. When he investigated, he found many others who had chatted with “Owen” had been scammed on an online forum for WWF players. “This is a classic long con,” says Berens, who wrote a blog post in 2018 about his mother's experience.

While he can't say for sure, he suspects the culprits are in a dark room full of men with a standard script and gigantic screens with multiple WWF games being played simultaneously. “Owen” and the script could even be the products of artificial intelligence, he says. It may be that a bot starts a WWF game and after the other player answers basic questions, the con is handed over to a human being. If true, it “means this scam potentially has global scale at what is effectively zero cost to the scammers,” Berens says.

In Australia, government officials said losses reported from WWF romance scams were nearly $430,000 in 2019 alone.

Many readers who responded to Berens’ blog post were men who described being approached by beautiful, romantically inclined young women with sob stories — and pleas for help.

Amy Nofziger, who directs the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360 toll-free), says WWF scams have been around for two or three years. The scammers are “masters at making the human connection, and they use it to their advantage,” she says. So if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, ask yourself: ‘Why am I the only person who can help?'"

Above all, consider the other person a stranger, she cautions, since “that is what they are."

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6 Tips to Stay Safe Online

Digital strategist Brad Berens with the University of Southern California became intrigued with Words With Friends scams when his mother encountered a stranger online. He cautions people not to believe something just because it’s on the web. Even with his two teen daughters, Berens says he’s worked to “make them skeptical of what they see online.”

People, regardless of age, should heed his advice.

1. Don’t play online games with people you don’t know in real life.

2. If you do play with strangers — and you shouldn’t — don’t share personal information.

3. Never send money to people you don’t know.

4. If you’re tempted to send money to a stranger — and you shouldn’t — first have a “sanity check” with a friend or relative. If you’re too embarrassed to talk to a trusted person, your gut may be telling you the person seeking your cash isn’t who he or she claims to be.

5.  Research your case. Try the myth-busting site, or copy some of the message you’ve received, paste the text in Google, hit “return” and see if it shows up elsewhere.

6. Change your profile picture. Berens changed his mom’s profile picture to one of his dog, Ace, a Pembroke Welsh corgi. So far, nobody has tried to scam the pup.

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