Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Prince Charming Behind Bars: Part 1

An Illinois woman’s life is changed forever when she falls victim to a romance scam online

spinner image Illustration of romance scam

Subscribe:   Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn

spinner image Quote graphic from the perfect scam podcast
Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Will: This week on AARP - The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] The whole first stage of this was just get the victim to fall in love.

[00:00:07] How did I love him so much and then not want to help him out when he's in this situation.

[00:00:12] They actually stole men's pictures and then cut and pasted them onto these fake websites.

[00:00:19] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Will Johnson. And for those of you who are joining us for the first time, I'd like to introduce to you my cohost, Frank Abagnale, Frank, thanks for being here.

[00:00:30] Frank Abagnale: Thank you, Will. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:31] Will: And for anyone who doesn't know you, your, your life story was featured in the movie Catch Me If You Can.

[00:00:36] Frank Abagnale: Yes.

[00:00:37] Will: You were played by Leonardo DiCaprio. You have since then been in the FBI for 41 years now, is that right?

[00:00:42] Frank Abagnale: 43.

[00:00:43] Will: 43. I've lost track of time. What have you been up to? You've been traveling the world it sounds like, going overseas?

[00:00:49] Frank Abagnale: Yeah at 70, I'm busier now than ever been in my life and of course fraud is, there's all kinds of fraud going on from scams to cybercrime and things of that nature, so I did end up this past year writing a book called "Scam Me If You Can." It's a book about all types of scams, both the scams against seniors but scams also against investors and people who work the stock market and things like that, so it covers every type of scam and then explains how the scam works, whether it's an internet scam or it might be a social media scam, things like that.

[00:01:25] Will: And Frank, what's percolating in the world of scams? What's new? What's hot? What are the bad guys doing with technology?

[00:01:29] Frank Abagnale: So take a look around your home. So if you have a device at home that you can ask what's the weather today, what's on TV tonight, that's a voice activated device. With a minor twitch, a minor hack, I can hear every single thing you say in your house. You have security cameras around your house, 'cause when you go away you like to take a look at your iPhone and you can see what's going on around your property, but actually I can hack into those cameras and watch you and watch what's going on around your property. There are devices on our laptop that have a camera on it. Those things can be turned around so that I can watch you on that whatever it is you're doing in your house or in your room. Sometimes we take technology too far, but most of all, we develop all this technology with ever, without ever going to the final step and saying, okay, this is great, but how would someone misuse this technology? We never get there, 'cause we're so quick about we have to get it out to market, we have to get a return on our investment, that nobody ever stops and says, [00:02:28] how do we fix it so this can't happen until it happened. We can use technology, but we have to be wise, we have to be a little smarter consumer today than we did 25 years ago, and we have to ask those questions if the company's not asking, we have to ask the company, what have you done to make sure no one can hear what I'm saying in my house since this is a voice activated tool. Those are the kind of things we need to ask.

[00:02:53] Will: You're in town talking to, you have a meeting at the FBI, is that right?

[00:02:57] Frank Abagnale: Inservice training, so I'll be up in Maryland this week. We do not only in-service training for FBI agents, but also law enforcement, local law enforcement as well.

[00:03:10] Will: What is Inservice training, if I might ask?

[00:03:11] Frank Abagnale: Just updating them with the most current things that are going on and again, much like this, how they're being perpetrated, who's perpetrating them, how do we go about apprehending them.

[00:03:22] Will: Your focus is on scams and fraud.

[00:03:24] Frank Abagnale: Scams, frauds, um, a lot of cybercrime now, a lot of breaches and things of that nature.

[00:03:31] Will: I understand you have a presentation you have set up, and the last couple of slides might deal specifically with topics that in the last couple of slides might deal specifically with topics that we're interested in. Can you talk about that?

[00:03:39] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, what was amazing to me is some stats that have just come out in the last, basically in the last month that last year seniors were ripped off for more than 37 billion dollars by scams. 37 billion, and the other one was that every day in the United States, 7 days a week, every single day, 10,000 people turn 65. So we're talking about a lot of people and obviously...

[00:04:05] Will: Baby Boomers now, right?

[00:04:06] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and we don’t want, well you know, I always have to remind people, we don't want seniors scammed, but it's unbelievable how many people get scammed, whether they're 18, 25, 40, or they're 90. You know so it covers everybody. That's why I was encouraged to write that book, I realized it's not just seniors, it's just everybody who falls for these scams.

[00:04:26] Will: Let's talk about romance scams before we get into today's story. First of all, a few stats I'm going to throw at you. Stop me if any of these sound crazy to you or you don't believe them. The FBI says reports of romance scams triple between 2012 and 2016 and reported losses in 2016, so a few years ago 220 million, not a surprise given the number you just gave me. 31 percent of people say they've developed a relationship with someone that first started online, so nowadays going online and finding love is really common these days.

[00:04:55] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and that's why we've seen such a big jump. That doesn't surprise me because of the internet. Now you have all of these people who meet people online.

[00:05:04] Will: All right, Frank, standby. We'll be back with you to talk more about romance scams. This week we're going to introduce you to a story about the ringleader of an international criminal organization who stole millions of dollars from women across the United States by promising true enduring love.


[00:05:21] Will: Romance scams are everywhere. And there's no limit to what scammers will do to rip off victims.

[00:05:27] It's an organized crime epidemic that spans multiple countries and tens of thousands of Americans fall victim to this each year. We're talking about romance scams.

[00:05:36] Romance scams, criminals hook people searching for love online.

[00:05:40] Cybercriminals also prey on lonely hearts and they call it romance scams.

[00:05:45] Will: This week you're going to meet Sara, a young mother whose life spirals out of control when she meets a stranger online. Sara's family owned car lots around their hometown in Southern Illinois. Her family was well known and successful. That probably made her a perfect target for a scammer. You're also going to hear about other women looking for love online but ending up without a penny. You'll learn how scammers deftly work their way into the hearts of victims and how a ring of criminals thousands of miles away can spin a mesmerizing web of lies. In 2008, Sara was looking for someone. Recently divorced and the mother of a 13-year-old daughter, she started looking through profiles on My Space. It was actually her daughter who urged her mom to try it out.

[00:06:26] Sara: My daughter, she was like around 13 at the time and she's like, Mom, you know you need to, 'cause I was never into like the, being on a computer prior to all this, so that was like all new to me, and so she ended up having one of her friends end up making me a My Space and helping me get pictures on it and different things like that. And that's how it all started. So then I started commuting--, communicating with people that I didn't know.

[00:07:00] Will: But Sara's journey to that day when she logged onto My Space had been one of pain, recovery, and survival. Ten years earlier, she was the victim of a violent crime; a bullet fired a point blank range left her partially blind, depressed, searching for words that used to come easily. She wasn't who she used to be before the attack.

[00:07:18] Sara: My parents and everything, I mean if you seen me walking somewhere, you would not had ever, you would not dream that I, anything like this has ever happened.

[00:07:27] Will: It happened on New Year’s Eve, 1998. Her parents owned a booming business, six used car lots around her hometown of Fairmount City, Illinois. It was a family business that her parents opened in 1971.

[00:07:38] And we were one of the honest people, so people trusted us, so we didn't do any advertising. And we had all the business that we could handle.

[00:07:49] Will: Sara was the mother of a 2-year-old, just 24 years old, and engaged to be married. She was working at the car lot that day with Usario, a salesperson when her parents made a trip to the bank. When they returned, they found flashing lights, police cars, yellow crime scene tape. Their lives and Sara's would never be the same.

[00:08:08] Sara: There was a robbery, a armed robbery and I got shot point blank in the head with a .38 revolver and then also in the back.

[00:08:22] Will: In an instant a violent crime turned Sara's life upside-down.

[00:08:26] Sara: I know that I'm different than I used to be. So it bothers me that somebody took that from me when in turn he could have um, just put a mask on or whatever, and if he still felt like he needed to do the crime...

[00:08:44] Will: When I'm talking to Sara, she tells me at different times about how the bullet has affected her. Her memory, her moods, her vision, the list goes on and on.

[00:08:52] Sara: It's been a long road for me, 'cause everything like looks familiar to me and stuff, but to name like simple objects or even read like a simple word, it was like totally like wiped away.

[00:09:06] Will: Sara lives close to her mom now. He dad passed away. She did get married after the attack but later divorced. Around 2008, when Sara's daughter tried to get her mom dating aging, she doesn't push back.

[00:09:19] Sara: I was just thinking, you know of my age and stuff like that. I didn't want to like grow old alone or that, you know what I mean, and at my age and stuff, you know, most people's out, out and about and doing things.

[00:09:35] Will: Sara was a survivor. She'd been on the brink of death and came back. She knew she deserved love just like anyone else. So was it to meet someone romantically or was it just more about meeting people in general? Or both?

[00:09:48] Sara: Mostly meeting, most of the people that I actually talked to were men.

[00:09:53] Will: You wanted to meet someone and...

[00:09:55] Sara: Yeah, I sort of was looking for like a relationship with somebody, and you know, that kind of thing.

[00:10:01] Will: Sara found someone she likes the look of. She doesn't really remember if she reached out to him first or the other way around. Was there a photo attached to his profile or did you see what he looked like?

[00:10:12] Sara: There was a picture of him and there were several different pictures of him.

[00:10:16] Will: He looked good.

[00:10:17] Sara: Yeah, somebody that I would find attractive. And very clean-cut.

[00:10:22] Will: So you knew he looked like someone you might be interested in and then you started writing online mostly or phone calls? Or how did it start?

[00:10:30] Sara: Um, it started originally just on the computer but he, he moved pretty quickly where he was more apt to wanting me to get onto Yahoo Messenger.

[00:10:44] Will: And what did he tell you about himself, his name, and what he was doing?

[00:10:47] Sara: He said that he was stationed at um, Scott Air Force Base in Mascoutah, Illinois. Um, he said that he was a major in the US Army. He told me that he was 40 years old. That he had a daughter, and that um, he lost his wife to a car--, in a car accident. And it had been like five years or so, and that his in-laws and well basically his in-laws, 'cause his parents were supposed to be, had, had already passed away, his in-laws had told him, you know, that he needed to move on and try to get back in the swing of life.

[00:11:36] Will: Sara's mother remembers her daughter telling her about her new online friend.

[00:11:40] She had been telling me that she met this guy that was a major in the Army and he was in the Black Hills of Africa doing spy work. It made her so happy that somebody was interested in her because her husband had her convinced that nobody would ever want her. At first, I was real happy for her and I thought what can it hurt over the phone?

[00:12:08] Will: Everything that this guy was saying to Sara could have been true, everything he was sharing with her. He could have been in the military, could be doing spy work overseas, could be looking for a relationship just as Sara was. It was all possible.

[00:12:22] Sara: Yeah, he was very, very caring at the beginning. Um, seems like an overall good guy. I like the part of him having his daughter and stuff, and he'd send me pictures of her and um, myself, I um, no longer could have kids or anything, you know, so that was a good thing for me, 'cause I, I love children.

[00:12:49] Will: Sara feels comfortable enough talking to Elias that she opens up about her past and what happened 10 years earlier. And what did you guys talk about? Just sort of anything and everything?

[00:12:58] Sara: Right up off the bat I end up telling him about my accident and what all happened to me. And all that. So he was well aware of you know, what had happened to me so therefore he could make the decision to continue to talk to me or not talk to me, 'cause other people, a lot of guys, when they would find out that you didn't drive or this happened to you, or that happened to you, you no longer work and different things like that, they weren't interested.

[00:13:31] Will: Sara says Elias speaks English with an accent. Did you ask him about that?

[00:13:36] Sara: Yeah, I ended up asking him about that, 'cause I really, really liked how he sounded, and um, he said that he was actually from Greece and that he was adopted by a family that lived in Mascoutah.

[00:13:56] Will: Up until this point they'd been talking on Yahoo Messenger and phone calls, but Elias wants to see more of Sara. He convinces her to get a webcam and helps her get is set up. So then you could do what a lot of people do who have met online. You were able to communicate over a video camera or on the phone or in a number of different ways.

[00:14:14] Sara: Right, and I was able to like, he was able to view me, but I never got to view him because he told me that with him being you know on his job and that, that he was unable to like be viewed or whatever.

[00:14:31] Will: Adam Latham works with the US postal service, specializing in mail fraud. That can mean a lot of things because a lot of bad guys use the mail; drugs, prostitution, extortion, you name it. He also knows a heck of a lot about romance scams and what makes them work so well.

[00:14:46] Adam Latham: Part of the success is the tenacity of the scammers themselves, but the other part of it is the psychology of love, I think. They, they use women that were typically uh been recently divorced, were looking to get back into the dating scene. They wanted to be in love again.

[00:15:08] Will: By this point, Sara doesn't know it yet, but she's being groomed. The invisible scammers pulling out all the stops to make a connection with her.

[00:15:14] Sara: He had sent me two dozen roses and he was sending me cards. He was sending me chocolate and bathing like kind of pampering stuff like that.

[00:15:28] Will: Romantic gifts. He seemed like a really pretty great guy.

[00:15:31] Sara: Yeah.

[00:15:33] Will: He even tells her to buy a book.

[00:15:34] Sara: He said it's a really good book and it reminds me of us. And it was called "Soulmates."

[00:15:40] Will: Would you talk to him daily?

[00:15:42] Sara: Oh yeah. Numerous times a day.

[00:15:44] Will: For hours.

[00:15:45] Sara: Yes.

[00:15:46] Will: I'm guessing.

[00:15:47] Sara: Yeah.

[00:15:48] Will: Falling deeper into the romance Sara reciprocates.

[00:15:50] Sara: And it was getting close to Christmas and stuff, and he was talking like, I was asking him about his daughter, Katie, how horrible it was that he was all the way over there and was going to miss Christmas, and you know, being in a different country and not knowing anybody and so on and so on. So I felt really sad for him, so I bought him like a bunch of gifts and stuff like that and sent them over there to him.

[00:16:20] Will: So you were exchanging gifts at that point. No one was asking for anything in particular.

[00:16:24] Sara: No, he wasn't asking for anything on that part. I mean in a way he was, but not in a way, you know what I mean? He would say something like, that he was very limited on his supplies that had had there, and then he kept on saying something about that with him being a spy that it's not like he even really exists in the country.

[00:16:48] Will: So he hinted at, you know, it would be nice to have some things.

[00:16:51] Sara: Yeah.


[00:16:56] Will: But this romantic exchange of gifts doesn't last. He's got Sara where he wants her.

[00:17:01] Sara: He said that he was staying in a hotel there. And that he was going to end up not having, he only had two more nights and then he was going to be on the street or something like that. And then that's when I was questioning him, like why would our government have you over there and not have a place to stay.

[00:17:24] Will: He made up lies to convince you that, to send him something.

[00:17:28] Sara: At certain points it was the hotel thing, and then he was like, you know is there any way that you can send me this, and then when, when I get back, then I'll give it to you and stuff like that. He just got, he got more like his voice and everything, and his personality and everything like totally changed.

[00:16:51] Will: He got, it sounds like more demanding.

[00:17:48] Sara: Very demanding.

[00:17:50] Will: This has been only over the course of weeks, from November to December. He starts talking about marriage and as Sara is noticing his tone is changing.

[00:17:58] Sara: I mean if I didn't answer the, the calls when he would call or something, you know, that that would aggravate him and...

[00:18:08] Will: So controlling and demanding.

[00:18:10] Sara: Yeah, and then he always wanted me to send money through MoneyGram and stuff.

[00:18:14] Will: But ever since that night of the armed robbery in 1998 when a bullet was fired into her brain, Sara's parents have kept a close eye on her, and her finances. She's on a fixed income, and she doesn't drive.

[00:18:25] Sara: Like when I wasn't able to give him money, he end up, um, saying, well I know your parents have money 'cause they've got six car lots and this and that.

[00:18:34] Will: So what did you do?

[00:18:36] Sara: Well at that time, my mom was already realizing that he was probably a fraud, so they were like trying to get me not to talk to him anymore, and they were like taking my computer away from me and different things like that.

[00:18:50] Will: Did they find out that you were sending money?

[00:18:52] Sara: At one point they did.

[00:18:54] Will: Did he ask for electronics, am I right on that? Or laptops or something like that eventually?

[00:18:58] Sara: He asked for um, a webcam, and the reason for that was is he said, if I sent him one of those for Christmas then on Christmas Day and New Year's Even that he'd actually be able to, he's able to be on a webcam for his family because of it being the holidays.

[00:19:21] Will: But not with you.

[00:19:22] Sara: Well it was supposed to happen with me, but when he set his up, all it was was like um, it wasn't clear at all. You couldn't even see that there was a person or anything there. It was just like staticky looking.

[00:19:36] Will: But like most scams over the phone or internet, Sara is not the only victim, far from it in fact. Another woman in Southern Illinois is getting dragged into a similar financial hole. In April of 2012, Jane Doe #1 as she came to be ID'd decides to take her story to the authorities. She meets with investigators in a sparse conference room in St. Louis and proceeds to tell all.

[00:20:01] Adam Latham: She was an educated woman. She was a principal at a school in southern Illinois. Yeah, she was a highly respected woman.

[00:20:07] Will: Nathan Stump is an Assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of Illinois. He was a member of the legal team brought into the case. It was his first time investigating a romance scam like this.

[00:20:18] Nathan Stump: She was rather private about that to where she, I don't think she even told her, her grown children yet that she was doing that. Sort of poking around seeing what else might be out there for her.

[00:20:28] Adam Latham: What she told us was just amazing. I think she sat with us for probably maybe two or two and a half hours. And just explained the story to her of how she was divorced, recently divorced, and was branching out on online dating sites and had met someone that she had struck up a relationship with. And then went on to explain to us how it turned south after months and months of talking with this man that she thought was her love interest. It went south. He asked for money, he asked for more money, and she just told us about the story about how she'd lost tens of thousands of dollars that eventually forced her into bankruptcy.

[00:21:07] Will: Adam Latham listened and took notes.

[00:21:08] Adam Latham: Maybe, I don't like to admit it now, but maybe I was a little bit incredulous at the time of how, how this could happen, but since then I, I realized how it did happen, and so I was just kind of listening in awe to her story about how she had been conned.

[00:21:21] Will: It was the first romance scam of this kind that Latham had come across and it was eye-opening.

[00:21:26] Adam Latham: What we learned through the investigation is that it goes unreported, I think, because there's a lot of embarrassment around it. People that think they're in love, and then get conned, justifiably get embarrassed and don't want their friends or their relatives to know that the person they thought they were in love with ripped them off for tens of thousands of dollars. So it definitely goes vastly unreported due to mainly because of the embarrassment factor associated with it.


[00:21:52] Will: They have a name, Illumsa Sunmola, the same name that Sara was sending her money to. They needed to find out if there were other victims, how many and how much money was involved. They subpoena Western Union and MoneyGram to see if other Americans were sending money to the same person. The work pays off. They find dozens and dozens of names. Latham learns pretty quickly that Sunmola's scam is sophisticated and he's probably not acting alone.

[00:22:17] Adam Latham: This particular romance scam is sophisticated because of the extent of grooming, we call it grooming that he conducted uh with his victims. It took months and months of times, of daily communication, between him and South Africa and his victims in, in the US. It was also sophisticated because of the use of these wire transfers. It became sophisticated in that he also moved onto asking them to, to reship stolen merchandise to him in South Africa.

[00:22:48] Will: Investigators dig into the details of exactly how the scammers went about their business. Sunmola's MO with Jane Doe #1 followed the same playbook that used with Sara and he moved quickly.


[00:22:59] Adam Latham: Through this several months of grooming process, of talking to her daily, he develops a trusting relationship with her. His goal is to make her fall in love with him, um, 'cause that's really, he's going, he's going to gain even more control when it reaches that threshold of, of her falling in love with him. So that's the goal. He sent her flowers. So even though he was in South Africa, you could use you know, you could call up a local florist anywhere, so he had flowers sent to her. He had teddy bears and candy, um, little gifts and trinkets that were sent to her, and again, that's all part of this green process of getting her to feel comfortable with them, of getting her to fall in love with him.

[00:23:41] Will: Nathan Stump with the US Attorney's Office was also struck by how much time and effort the scammers put into this grooming period.

[00:23:47] Nathan Stump: The whole first stage of this was just get the victim to fall in love. Once they had the victim in love which was usually through sending flowers, other gifts, chocolates and stuffed animals and stuff like that to maybe sending poetry and love letters, and very frequent communication. So definitely daily, usually many times per day, emails, text messages, even some phone calls, and in that way, they were able to take what normally would take us I think in sort of American society you know um, I don't know, six months to a year to really come to feel that way about someone, they were able to accomplish it in maybe just a month.

[00:24:33] Will: Elias, or Sunmola finally makes his move.

[00:24:36] Adam Latham: And it was just emails, him saying that I've run into some problems here in South Africa, I'm a Army contractor, I, I can't, my credit card has been denied here. I'm afraid I'm going to be put out on the street, so I need your help. So it was just a, a very, kind of an, a short email, kind of nondescript but it just said, "I'm having problems here, can you please send me some money?"

[00:25:00] Will: The process is all too familiar for Sara. After talking to her for just a few weeks, Sunmola starts asking for money for hotels and food and basic needs. He's getting more demanding. Sara's watchful mom is getting suspicious. She realizes that her daughter is basically borrowing money she doesn't have to send money overseas. She's getting cash advances on her only credit card.

[00:25:21] So I called my husband, 'cause he was going to take her grocery shopping, and uh, so I said, "Don, did you guys just go to the bank?" And he said, "Yes, we did." And I said that envelope you just got from the bank, you give it to your dad now.

[00:25:38] Will: Sara's mom is now highly suspicious of what's going on.

[00:25:41] So little by little this stuff started adding up in my head. Um, that this wasn't right.

[00:25:51] Will: The man named Elias told her that he was from a nearby town. He even gave an address. So Sara and her mom decided to take a drive.

[00:25:59] We drove by the house and it was for sale.

[00:26:03] Sara: There was a house and all that...

[00:26:06] And I said that's it's odd that he's got that house for sale. And she said, "Well, he's not home, Mom. He don't need it."

[00:26:13] Will: With her parents on high alert and her money running out, Sara says Sunmola starts hounding her, questioning her feelings for him, and then the story takes a much darker turn.

[00:26:23] I have people that's watching your house. They got cameras on you and everything.

[00:26:28] Will: Join us next week to find out what Sara does next, and how investigators armed with the testimony of dozens of victims dig deeper into the ringleader of an international romance scam.


[00:26:45] Will: And I'm back with AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. Frank, sadly this story probably sounds familiar.

[00:26:52] Frank Abagnale: Very familiar, and not only with someone young like Sara, but older folks as well, 'cause people are lonely, people are looking for company, and unfortunately they fall for a lot of scams over the phone or through the internet with people who are trying to really take advantage of them in the long run.

[00:27:09] Will: As we mentioned in the story, this guy's using the playbook. I mean he's sending teddy bears, chocolates, he's getting her to fall in love, and it's not surprising that she's falling in love.

[00:27:23] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, these type of people sometimes work with other people, sometimes they work alone. I remind people that they're not just working on Sara, so they're working on 4 or 5 different people, so the literally have all these notes that they've taken about Sara. They have notes they've taken about these other women, and they're working these all the time. This is a job for them, an 8-hour day job that they go and work on every single day. They have all these notes. They learn all of this information about people and everything else, and it makes it very convincing to the other person that it's just me they're talking to, and they really care about me and they now know all this about me because they care about me, and that's all part of the scam.

[00:28:04] Will: And one thing we know about this story and this case from investigators is that this gentleman scammed numerous women in this area of Southern Illinois, so I think that's a facet of it, right, that he's able to learn about the area?

[00:28:17] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, because a lot of these, especially romance scams, are people who are overseas whether they're in Greece or they're in Europe, or they're in Africa; no matter where they are, they have to learn about the actual geography and the territory of the people that they're trying to scam, so that they can make it sound like they're from there or they used to live there, so they'll concentrate on one area. They learn a lot about that area, and again, they have the internet, so they have easy access to find out what's the name of the grocery stores there, what's the name of the local banks there, what's the name of the hospital there. Who's the mayor. You know all kinds of things so that they can make it sound like wow, yeah, he obviously must have grown up here and lived here.

[00:28:56] Will: Do a lot of these scams originate, this one certainly does, from outside of the US, but is that...

[00:29:01] Frank Abagnale: I find that a lot of these romance scams again, whether dealing with younger people or seniors, originate from overseas more so than they do within domestically within the US.

[00:29:11] Will: If someone like Sara starts to get the feeling that whoever they're talking to is not telling the truth, what's the best advice?

[00:29:19] Frank Abagnale: The best advice is to do some simple research. You don’t have to hire a private investigator. Start to find out what's this person's name, Google that person's name, find out where these actual, when they're calling you, where are these calls actually coming from? You know he said he was a major in the Army. You actually could call the Army. You know, he was trying to say he was undercover because she knew that you could call the military and explain what was going on, and I'm sure that a criminal investigator at the military would at least confirm to you that that person was in the military or not. So he was covering that possibility by saying, well no, I do undercover work. I'm on a mission, so he was trying to block her from maybe doing that, but there are a lot of, again, a lot of resources out there that you can, you can check someone out. And certainly, before I was ever going to part with any money or put myself in a situation where someone might be able to extort me, I certainly, if I even had to spend a little money to have an investigator find out if this person [00:30:19] is really who they say they are, it would be worth doing that.

[00:30:23] Will: And of course, anyone who's been involved in a scam or think they might be involved in a scam; romance or otherwise, can call the Fraud Watch Network Helpline. It is 877-908-3360 or Google the Fraud Watch Network or go to Lots of ways to find that important resource. Or you can call and talk to actual people about what's going on.

[00:30:42] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely, and we've mentioned that many times because I think that's one of the best things that AARP does. These are very educated, highly knowledgeable people when it comes to fraud and scams, so there's no charge. You don't have to be an AARP member. You have to be a senior. You basically can call and say this is what's going on and get the advice of someone who would know if that's really actually a scam going on or would tell you, here's the things you need to do to make sure you're not being scammed. And if you were, in fact, scammed, they would be able to tell you what's the next step you need to do to try to recover your money or your funds.

[00:31:15] Will: They, in fact, really deal with the emotional impact too, and they help people through that whole process. And people can also call Frank directly, right? If we can have your personal...

[00:31:23] Frank Abagnale: I get enough calls already.

[00:31:24] Will: All right, don't call Frank. All right, Frank. Join us again next week as we tell you the conclusion of the story with Sara and the romance scam mastermind in South Africa.


[00:31:34] Will: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-6360. As always, thanks to my team of scambusters, producers Julie Getz and Brook Ellis. Our audio engineer Julio Gonzales. And of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. For The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.


Sara thought she knew everything about the Army major and single father she met online. After months talking she found herself falling for him. But what Sara didn’t know was that the man she’d fallen in love with was actually the ringleader of a romance scam that bilked nearly $2 million from its victims.

TIPS:  If you think you’ve been a victim of a scam or would like to report fraud call The Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360Anyone can become the victim of a scam, it’s important to be vigilant and know your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job you are more vulnerable to a work-at-home scam.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

The Perfect ScamSM is a project of the AARP Fraud Watch Network, which equips consumers like you with the knowledge to give you power over scams.

How to Listen and Subscribe to The Perfect Scam

  iPhone or iPad

  1. Open the Podcasts app, search for the show title and select it from the list of results.
  2. Once on the show page, click the "Subscribe" button to have new episodes sent to your phone or tablet for free.
  3. Click the name of an episode from the list below to listen.

       Android Phone or Tablet

  1. Open the Google Play Music app, search for the show title and select it from the list of results.
  2. Once on the show page, click the "Subscribe" button to have new episodes sent to your phone or tablet for free.
  3. Click the name of an episode from the list below to listen

    Smart Speakers (Amazon Echo or Google Home)
  1. To play podcasts on your Amazon Echo smart speaker, ask the following: "Alexa, ask TuneIn to play The Perfect Scam podcast" OR "Alexa, play The Perfect Scam podcast on TuneIn"
  2. To play podcasts on your Google Home smart speaker, ask the following: "Hey Google, Play The Perfect Scam podcast"

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?

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.