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Woman Who Lost Everything in a Romance Scam Finds New Purpose

She became a fraud-fighting ‘warrior’ after fake surgeon left her nearly penniless

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Illustration: Jarred Briggs

For more than 10 years after Kate Kleinert lost her husband to cancer, she had ruled out dating, because “I still considered myself married.”

The suburban Philadelphia woman had a change of heart in August 2020, when a handsome “surgeon” asked to be her Facebook friend. Soon he became romantic and professed his love. “Since the time I fell in love with you, I can’t stop thinking about you,” he told her. “I can only see my future with you. I will never stop loving you. I pray that I will always wake up next to you and hold you in my arms forever.”

But there was no love and no forever.

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She ended up losing everything she owned — including her home — in a coldhearted scam that played on her emotional vulnerability and kindness. But she didn’t stay down: Eventually, she rose from the wreckage, determined to help others recognize signs of fraud and prevent further victims.

The scam begins: A surgeon in a faraway land

Kleinert was married for 26 years. She quit her secretarial job to care for her husband, Bernie, during the last two years of his life, until his death in 2009. Her no-dating approach to widowhood fell by the wayside after her new Facebook friend, “Tony,” entered her life in 2020. He said he was a Norwegian surgeon working for the United Nations in Iraq, had two children and shared Kleinert’s interest in dogs and gardening.

At his suggestion, they started communicating on Google Hangouts, talking and texting many times a day. Moving toward romance very quickly, Tony said his kids were in an English boarding school and asked if they could call her “Mom.” Never having children, she said that was the “Achilles heel” that made her vulnerable.

Later, his “daughter” texted to ask for funds to buy feminine products. Kleinert sent her a gift card, unwittingly opening the floodgates for more requests for money.

A red flag: Never meeting in real life

Though the two never met in person, Tony talked about marriage, said he purchased a ring and asked her to look for a house for them near where she lived. All the while, he kept prodding her for gift cards — and promising he’d repay her. He even provided her with a password for a purported bank account with a $2 million balance.

The two were to meet for the first time in December 2020; he said he’d fly to Philadelphia International Airport. She had her hair and nails done and waited at home in her best dress for his call. A bottle of wine was chilling. Hours passed, without a word from him.

A day later, Kleinert got a call from a man who claimed to be a lawyer saying Tony had been arrested at the airport because someone planted drugs in his luggage. Tony was said to be confined to a Philadelphia jail and needed $20,000 for bail— money she did not have. Later, Tony called and messaged to urge her to get the money somehow, even if it meant lying to her family. She refused. But her reservations melted away when he complained about the “awful” food in jail and asked for small sums, which she sent.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Then Tony’s story got even crazier. He called saying he was in Jordan; he said he’d been released so he could raise the bail money. She said that wasn’t the way it worked: You don’t get out of custody to raise bail. Finally, she saw the romance for what it was — phonier than a $3 bill.

Though Tony was fake, her heartbreak was real. What hurt most, she said, was “losing his love and losing the family I thought I was going to have and what my new future was going to be. … That is much harder to deal with than losing the money.”

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But she’d lost a lot of money — $39,000 — to the pseudo suitor. He took what was left of her late husband’s life insurance and her savings, Social Security and pension benefits. She reported the crime to the FBI and state police, at first to no avail. For a time, she said, she lived off credit cards — then, unbelievably, things got even worse.

The nightmare continues: ‘I was stripped down to nothing’

Kleinert was still struggling in the summer of 2022, when her air-conditioning broke. “I couldn’t call anybody just to come look at it because that would have cost money. I had none at that point,” she says. She brought her six rescue dogs into the living room at night, where they’d all sleep next to an old portable air conditioner.

On the morning of July 16, she woke up to the air conditioner “spitting fire all over the living room.” She frantically tried to put the fire out herself before she had to flee out the front door, unable to find her dogs, who’d disappeared through the thick smoke toward the back of the house. “I couldn’t even tell what direction I was headed,” she recalls. “I felt like I was breathing in the flames.”

She somehow managed to get out the front door and, though the fire department arrived, the house burned down, with the dogs, Kleinert says, crying while recounting the disaster, which she blames on the scammer. “I feel like the fire was a consequence of the scam because I didn’t have the money to take care of the repair.”

At that point, she notes, “I lost all of my money and every possession that I owned. All I had was the set of underwear I was in when I went out the front door.”

The car key fob had melted, so she couldn’t even start her car.

“I was stripped down to nothing,” she says.

The scammer wants more

Two months later, Kleinert had received a small amount of money for living expenses from her insurance company while her case was being investigated. She was living in a hotel room when she got a call: Tony.

“I just hit the answer button without thinking,” she says, “and he said, ‘Hi, honey, how are you?’ ” She told him she’d lost everything — describing the fire and her financial destitution.

“That’s terrible,” he said, according to Kleinert, “but listen, I need a $150 gift card. So can you send me that today?” Astounded, she repeated the fact that she had no money left, she says, “and he said, ‘I know you have money. Your friend started a GoFundMe page for you.’ My hair on the back of my neck stood up straight.”

She gave him nothing. “I told him I hope he burned in hell for what he had done to me and probably a lot of other women.”

From there, she says, “the only way to go was up. I could either decide to curl up in a ball in the corner and stay there the rest of my life, or I could step up and move on, which is what I chose to do.”

Fighting back

Soon after she realized Tony was a fake, Kleinert reached out to the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360), where trained volunteers provide fraud victims and family members support and guidance on what to do next. After helping her with her immediate issues, Helpline staff asked if she’d share her experience with others, she says, “and I willingly did that, and I still willingly do that.”

She’s since moved to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — “which I’ve always loved,” she says — where she joined a church choir and made friends. Kleinert is a volunteer for AARP’s Pennsylvania office and an AARP spokesperson on fraud. She participates in tele-town halls about scams and fraud, sharing her story at events around the country.

“It has brought me such a sense of healing,” Kleinert says. “Not just telling my story, which in itself is healing, [but] looking at the faces and seeing people nodding their heads like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been in that situation,’ or ‘I know how that feels,’ and having people come up to me after and whisper in my ear when they’re hugging me, ‘I’m in a scam myself.’ ”

She offers them support and advice, urging potential victims to trust their instincts: “If your gut is telling you there’s something wrong here, listen to it,” she tells them. She’s been called a “warrior against romance scams,” she notes, because “I am angry about this and how it hurts people.”

Kleinert embraces this unexpectedly satisfying new chapter in her life: “I am a much stronger person. And I am a much better person, because I’m so willing to speak to other people and give that part of myself to whoever needs it. Here I am — 71, and I’m out speaking and really busy with this stuff. It’s wonderful.”

Romance scams: A huge problem

Kleinert’s costly nightmare is not uncommon. Reported losses to romance scams totaled $1.14 billion in 2023, with median losses per person of $2,000 — the highest reported losses for any form of impostor scam, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The actual amount lost is probably far higher, because fraud victims are often reluctant to report these crimes.

Con artists prowl most dating and social media sites, the FBI warns, advising:

  • If you suspect an online relationship is a scam, stop all contact immediately.
  • When using dating sites and apps, you should not send money to someone you have only talked to online or by phone.

Resources and support

  • Learn about the warning signs for romance scams at the AARP Fraud Resource Center.
  • Call AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline toll-free (877-908-3360), as noted above, for resources about scams, guidance for victims on next steps and more.
  • The VOA ReST (Resilience, Strength and Time) program, a collaboration between AARP and Volunteers of America, offers free online facilitated emotional support sessions for fraud victims. You can attend as many sessions as you’d like; just register in advance online.

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.