En español | As the pandemic began roaring last April, they met on Zoosk, a dating website. Denise, 55, divorced and living in California, liked what she heard: He cast himself as a kind man, keen for a long-term relationship. He would love her and care for her. He pledged that her family was his family. “My better half,” he called her, having those words engraved — with their names — on a glass keepsake he sent her.
Though he said he lived nearby, he and Denise never met. He made one excuse after another: the coronavirus lockdowns, a sudden illness, a hospitalization, a work assignment in another state. He said he was a construction engineer and had projects around the world. Mostly the two texted; sometimes they chatted by phone. A few times during their roughly six-month “relationship,” he sent flowers.
Red flags emerge
Not meeting face-to-face was the first red flag. His request that she buy him pricey Google Play gift cards was the second. Ultimately, he ripped her off for about $5,000 — never, as promised, repaying it — and after she gave him access to her checking account, bit by bit, she unknowingly helped him launder about $200,000 in ill-gotten gains from criminal activity, including, she says, unemployment fraud. In October, when she was down to $18 in her checking account, he filched $10, then ghosted her.
The “suitor,” of course, was phonier than a $3 bill.
What you can do
If you’ve been a money mule, it is never too late to stop, according to federal authorities, who urge people to:
- Stop communicating with the person giving you directions.
- Tell your financial institution and consider changing accounts.
- Report suspicious communications or activity to law enforcement.
Denise reported him to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center and provided AARP with a copy of her complaint. She also discussed her ordeal with AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, and, asking that only her first name be used, spoke for this story, at one point breaking down in tears. Mostly, though, she wants to spare other potential victims from the emotional whiplash — and near-empty wallet — she survived.
Emotional, financial ‘torture’
"I pray by the grace of God that what I have come through,” she said, “may help at least one person to be spared the emotional and financial torture of such an experience. I just have to believe it was for a better purpose.
"It still haunts me … I have dating PTSD. The worst part was, first and foremost, the illegal activity in my name."
People like Denise are called “money mules,” the term for those who carry and transmit illicit money to disguise its origins. They transfer money derived from crimes, often starting by allowing the loot to be deposited in their own bank accounts. Typically, they pass the funds up the fraud chain by using, for example, gift cards, wire transfers, money orders, digital payment apps or bitcoins. Some mules are compensated for their efforts, while others are unwitting accomplices.
In recent years, authorities in the U.S. have put hundreds of mules — many of them older Americans — on notice that if they don't stop what they're doing, they could be slapped with criminal charges. Some, in fact, have been, like the Mississippi woman, now 71, awaiting trial for 19 felony charges punishable by up to 550 years in prison.
Important to know: It's not just crooks masquerading as online suitors who manipulate people into being mules. Fake employment opportunities are another ruse. #DontBeAMule, a federal government public-service campaign, gives the warning signs that a bad actor has you laundering dirty money. Among them:
1. You've opened a bank account or moved money at someone else's direction.
2. You've given someone access to your bank account or debit card.
3. You've allowed money from people you don't know to be deposited in your account.
4. You've purchased gift cards or virtual currency at someone's direction.
5. You've taken a job that promises easy money and involves sending or receiving money or packages. Or you've agreed to receive or forward packages.
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A final warning sign comes from Denise, who says if you've asked questions of the person directing you to move money, and they've refused to answer, that's cause for concern. She recalls that whenever she challenged her love interest, a fight erupted and he turned the tables on her, making her seem insensitive or untrusting — a diversionary tactic to take the onus off him. “If you're uncomfortable about something, ask questions,” she advises. “And if they don't want to answer you, then that's a red flag all in itself."
Since filing her report in with the FBI in late October, Denise says she has not heard from the bureau but has retained records so authorities can pursue the heartbreaker she wishes she'd never met. After the two ceased contact, she says, she spotted his profile — under a different name — on another dating website, Plenty of Fish, and reported it to the site.
In her experience, he was conniving, manipulative and masterful. “I bet you he's been doing this for a long time. And he ain't done,” she says. “Until he's put away, he's not done."