When it comes to romance scams, Patrick Wyman, a 13-year veteran of the FBI, has seen it all. He’s investigated, helped on or supervised about 300 romance fraud cases.
Wyman, a supervisory special agent in the Washington Field Office, says two things are critical to preventing a smooth-talking criminal from breaking your heart and emptying your wallet:
- Whether you’re on dating sites or apps or a social-media platform such as Facebook, don’t fall in love too fast.
- Never send money to a romantic interest you’ve never met in person.
Romance fraudsters excel at building rapport, and try to isolate their supposed loves from relatives and friends who could smell a rat and derail their schemes, Wyman says. A crook might say that since he’s younger, the victim’s relative would never approve — so don’t tell them.
Painful truths emerge
His most memorable case? He was called in by local police to the home of a never-married, 60-something woman in Manassas, Virginia, who, by then, had given her fake, faraway suitor $75,000, even though the two had only exchanged texts and calls. The offender, believed to be overseas, also had her working as a "money mule" to launder the ill-gotten gains of other crimes.
Showing her his FBI credentials and badge, Wyman delivered some painful truths. “I had to explain to her this person was not someone she was ever going to meet in person, and that she was the victim of a scam.”
Wyman says he left feeling “pretty confident” that he’d broken through and the woman would stop communicating with the scammer. Within a couple of days, though, she phoned the agent to say she was coughing up $20,000 more.
What happened? The con artist told the woman that Wyman was lying, that he was not really an FBI agent and that he only wanted to “keep the two of them away from each other,” the agent says.
For her, soon reality sank in. The crook had wired the woman even more money to launder, but she refused and the FBI stepped in and seized the cash. Now the bad guy wanted "his" money, so he sent another one of his victims, who traveled from New Jersey to Virginia by cab, to knock on her door and demand the loot. At that point “she was actually very, very scared,” the agent says.
10 romance scam warning signs
While scams vary, Wyman says the romance fraudsters he’s encountered share these traits and techniques:
1. They go from 0 to 60 fast. They “profess love too quickly,” he says. After a week of trading texts, the fraudster will say he’s found his “soulmate” and declare his undying devotion.
Wyman says it’s not that he doesn’t believe in love at first sight; that happened, in fact, when he met his wife. “But I don’t know that I was professing it within the week — she would have thought I was crazy,” he remembers.
2. They’re flirtatious. They use flowery, over-the-top language, calling victims “honey” and “babe” and other pet names “just very early on in a process with someone that they’re never actually met in person.”
3. They’re convincing liars. They cook up stories to explain why they can’t meet, saying, for example, that they’re working on an oil rig. Or they cast themselves as an “amazing” businessman at work in a foreign country.
4. They’re identity thieves. They filch someone else's photos from the web and hide behind the images. A reverse-image search of a photo might quickly reveal the deception.
As with any representation made, Wyman urges thinking like a detective. “Does it seem logical that this person who ‘lives on an oil rig’ is sending you a picture holding a beer can that’s from the ’70s wearing Vietnam-era silky shorts?” he asks.
5. They’re two-timers. Fraudsters may pretend you’re their one and only, but they “definitely” pursue multiple victims at the same time. In one of his cases, Wyman says an analysis of telephone records showed an offender using different aliases simultaneously pursued two victims in Virginia and third in North Carolina.
The same offenders can pose as a male suitor in some scams and female admirers in others, he says.
6. They’re always promising to visit in person but...
7. Planned in-person visits are always postponed because of an unforeseen event, such as a hospitalization or flight delay.
Again, play detective. If a suitor says he’s a successful businessman abroad and needs $5,000 fast to release goods from customs, would someone in the finance department of his company or a banker not be able to help? Why are you, new to his life, being hit up for quick cash by a "successful" businessman?
9. They switch scams. Like the Manassas woman, it's not uncommon for romance scam victims to be converted into mules for money laundering. That crime, too, varies, and one form of it is package reshipping. The goods in the packages that are sent to the victims generally were pilfered or purchased with stolen credit cards, Wyman says, and shipping the valuables to another address is a ploy to deceive investigators. What’s reshipped? Electronics, shoes, cosmetics — you name it, he says.
10. The love they feign is not forever. Fraudsters move on if a victim doesn’t send them funds, Wyman says, since “they’re not going to spend a bunch of time with a person that they don’t think they can actually get to do what they want.”
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Some final thoughts
“With Valentine's Day coming up, I would say be careful if you’re out there floating through the dating sites and that sort of thing,” he says. “Just be careful not to fall victim to someone falling in love with you way too fast.”
Ask yourself if the story is too good to be true, and check it out with a neutral, trusted person, he advises.
40-plus are prime targets
The FBI agent says in his cases crooks have zeroed in on victims who are at least 40 years old and many range from their late 50s to mid-60s. Some are divorced, widowed or disabled, and the criminals “capitalize” on their “loneliness and isolation.”
If you are the victim of a romance scam, report it to the FBI and your financial institution. In some cases money that victims sent by wire can be recovered if the fraud is immediately reported, he says.
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.