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Sex, Lies and Cryptocurrency

In new twist, romance scammers seek Bitcoin and other virtual currencies from victims

Broken red heart on a hundred dollar bill
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Newly diagnosed with cancer, an Illinois man planned to take his wife camping for their 49th wedding anniversary in October. Ugly revelations sent the plan up in smoke. She confessed to sending cash, gift cards and Bitcoin to an online suitor who fed her a string of lies and even sent her a fake United Nations marriage certificate.

“He’s ruined my life,” the retiree, 69, says of the suitor, who describesd himself as an Army officer away on a “secret mission” in Afghanistan.   

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There’s nothing new about fraudsters posing as military officers, since that gives the crook an aura of stature, strength and patriotism — and an excuse for being thousands of miles away, unable to meet.

What is new — and troubling — is what the FBI warns is a spike in romance scammers persuading victims to allegedly invest or trade in cryptocurrency. Often called “crypto,” these digital forms of money are traded electronically through private wallets and public exchanges and can be difficult to trace.

Through July of this year, there were more than 1,800 cases of romance fraud involving cryptocurrency reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, with losses soaring to $133.4 million.

"This person is going to squeeze every single penny they can out of you, and they’re going to block your number, and you will never hear from them again.”

— Texan confronting his mother about a suspicious online suitor

Reaching out to AARP  

Some bad actors request digital currency outright, says Amy Nofziger, who oversees the Fraud Watch Network toll-free helpline, 877-908-3360.

The Illinois man called the helpline, spoke in an subsequent interview and is not being named in this story. It was bad enough that his wife sent cash and gift cards intended for her phony suitor to addresses in Indiana and Virginia, he says. That she bought Bitcoin for him in September marked a dangerous escalation, since the couple, both retired state employees, had never purchased virtual currency before. The Bitcoin cost her at least $12,750, according to the man, who suspects that his wife has given the suitor a total of $50,000 for supposed needs that he, as an Army veteran, finds difficult to swallow. She could not be reached for comment.

Texan worried for his mother

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A Texas man, 30, also called AARP’s helpline after his mother, widowed in 2020, began sending funds to men she met on the dating site Zoosk. Her latest interest is a someone who says he’s from Texas and working on a construction project in Africa. His mother has professed her love for him, assuring her son that the two will marry when he returns to the U.S.

Jarring to the son was a recent text from his mother in which she asked for his help to install the app for Coinbase, a large cryptocurrency exchange that lets people buy and sell virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Dogecoin. “You’re almost 70 years old — you don’t need to be trading crypto,” he told her.

Though he doesn’t know if she’s given away cryptocurrency, he is worried about her emotional and financial well-being and “disgusted” that someone would exploit a widow’s loneliness and grief.

He says his mother beats back protestations about her latest suitor by contending that her son and best friends simply don’t want her to remarry. That’s not true, he says. “I would actually love it if you got married again, but this is not the way to do it,” he’s told her. “This person is going to squeeze every single penny they can out of you, and they’re going to block your number, and you will never hear from them again.”

Zoosk, in its online safety guide, says it does not conduct background checks on members and advises users: "Ultimately, your online and offline safety is your responsibility and should be your top priority." "Common scammer behaviors," it says, include requests for money.

Pandemic triggers complaints

Nofziger says she noticed that the helpline was receiving complaints about romance scams triggering cryptocurrency losses a few months into the pandemic last year. Victims said online daters urged them to send them crypto online so the senders could stay safe at home. Scammers always “up their game” and discard older, well-publicized tactics, Nofziger notes, and victims in these scams often don’t realize there’s nothing left in their digital currency accounts until it’s too late. By then the “criminal has long moved on to another victim,” she says.

Anyone using dating sites and apps should be aware that criminals lurk there, “waiting for you and your wallet,” Nofziger says, so when somebody on a dating platform offers investment help, don’t walk away — run away. Her advice is in line with what Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization, stated in a January notice to its 194 member countries.

Preacher lends support

The Illinois man, who suffers from prostate cancer, says he now spends nights in his camper, parked in his sister’s driveway, and often talks over his troubles with his preacher.

In hindsight, he wishes he had kept a closer eye on the couple’s finances so he wouldn’t have been blindsided by his wife’s obsession with a man she met playing an online word game, he says. He’s sharing their story so others can learn from his heartbreak and avoid becoming a victim.

He still sees his wife regularly because of a medical condition that requires his help. He expects they’ll divorce. He says his wife still professes her love, though half-heartedly. Referring to the faraway fraudster, he says: “She keeps telling me she loves me, but then turns around and tells me how much she loves him.”

Cryptocurrency Safety

Anatomy of a Cryptocurrency Investment Scam

The FBI outlines the eight steps that a cryptocurrency investment scam commonly follows:

1.  The scammer’s initial contact is typically made via dating apps and other social media sites.

2.  The swindler gains the confidence and trust of the victim by establishing an online relationship and then claims to have knowledge of cryptocurrency investment or trading opportunities that will result in substantial profits.

3.  The con artist directs the victim to a fraudulent website or application for an investment opportunity.

4.  After the victim has invested an initial amount on the platform and sees an alleged profit, the scammers allows the victim to withdraw a small amount of money, further gaining the victim’s trust.

5.  After the successful withdrawal, the criminal instructs the victim to invest larger amounts of money and often expresses the need to “act fast.”

6.  When the victim is ready to withdraw funds again, the scammers invents reasons as to why this cannot happen. The victim is informed that additional taxes or fees need to be paid, or the minimum account balance has not been met to allow a withdrawal.

7.  This claim entices the victim to provide more funds. Sometimes a “customer service group” gets involved, which is also part of the scam.

8.  Victims are not able to withdraw any money, and the scammers most often stops communicating with the victim after they cease to send additional funds.

Tips to protect yourself:

  • Never send money, trade or invest based on the advice of someone you have met solely online.

  • Do not disclose your current financial status to unknown and untrusted individuals.

  • Do not provide your banking information, Social Security number, copies of your identification or passport, or any other sensitive information to anyone online or to a site that you do not know is legitimate.

  • If an online investment or trading site is promoting unbelievable profits, it is most likely that — unbelievable.

  • Be cautious of individuals who claim to have exclusive investment opportunities and urge you to act fast.

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.