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Divorcee Exposes Fraudster in Online Romance Scam

In part 2 of this podcast, meet Patricia, who suspects her online boyfriend is a scammer

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After a rough divorce, Patricia’s friends encourage her to try online dating. There she meets Jeff, who passes himself off as a wealthy businessman. The two share similar interests and after an online courtship, Patricia falls for him. But every time the two plan to meet in person, Jeff cancels. Then, while on a business trip to Dubai, Jeff says he needs Patricia to send him money. Patricia begins to get suspicious. Certain her online boyfriend is a con artist, she decides to convince him to reveal his true identity.

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(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:01] Michelle: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] People have such a fundamental and deep need for social and intimate connection with others. And so, if you have people who are really desperate to make a connection, it really creates this place where they're very vulnerable to a variety of scams, because they're tapping into these very deep insecurities, wants, and needs that they have.

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[00:00:26] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Michelle Kosinski. This week turning the tables on your scammer even when you happen to be madly with love with them. Is it possible? Yes, it is! Last week we told you about the super smart US Intelligence Analyst who gave her scammer virtually everything, a fortune, literally. But then turned it around. Have you heard her story? If not, you need to, because she is great. And now we bring you another very smart woman who managed to pull herself out of the scam bubble before things got really bad and then turned the tables, had some questions for the man on the other end. We'll also get some deeper insights into why and how these things evolve, and in some ways, it's not what you might think. So, to our scam. This one brings us out to California.

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[00:01:25] I was like back into the normal, I'm fully there and I'm ready, and I'm excited.

[00:01:32] Michelle: That's Patricia, a neuroscience nurse, and as you might hear in her beautiful accent, originally from Uganda. She also does a lot of charity work for kids in her homeland. She was finally in a good, sunny place after going through a terrible few years of her marriage falling apart and then a divorce. So three years after separating from her husband and some therapy, she felt ready to get out and maybe find a partner for all the things she likes to do.

[00:02:00] Patricia: My friends kept telling me, oh, go back out there in the world. You know, you are still young and all that.

[00:02:05] Michelle: They told her all about online dating, their ups and downs with it, so she decides to give it a go.

[00:02:12] Michelle: Had you ever heard of like the show Catfish, about people who make these fake personas and fake relationships, or heard any kinds of stories like that?

[00:02:20] Patricia: No! I didn't even know the term "catfish."

[00:02:24] Michelle: So she had just dipped a toe into the dating swamp, so to speak, when she felt she got a good nibble in the form of a lovely worldly man named Jeff.

[00:02:36] Patricia: And I was like, well, goodie, this is a good website. I should have started a long time ago because it's like he appeared maybe like within almost a week or so of me getting onto that website.

[00:02:47] Michelle: Oh, wow.

[00:02:49] Patricia: He was good. If I say he was good, he was good. You remember, I am a very educated person. I don't know whether he went and studied my profile as well, because there are some things that I didn't give away on the profile that he mentioned, and I've always had the desire to go to Greece, with a partner of course, I wanted to go to there with a partner and have a honeymoon there and everything, and one of the very first things that he said, he's like, "I love to travel, and I would love to take you out on that trip to Greece," and I'm like, I know I didn't put that in the profile. So that was a checkmark.

[00:03:22] Michelle: Oh my gosh.

[00:03:23] Patricia: And he's like, "Oh, I love traveling and, and I love to have a travel buddy," and I'm like, check, check. (giggle)

[00:03:30] Michelle: Scary. Almost uncanny the way they clicked.

[00:03:34] Patricia: He would mention things that, you know, to a girl who is back in the love game and you feel like, oh my god, where have you been all my life? And I think the thing that he did that was touchy now that I know it, before I didn't, he took me off the website. He's like, "Oh, you know what? You know, I'm not always on the internet to be able to check on you online, if you don't mind give me your phone number and let's talk offline so that I can text you and all that." And I was excited. I was like, yay! I did not know that that's actually a trick that they use. Now I know. But it's a trick they use. So I got off. I gave him my phone number, my real number that time, because nowadays I know that; I have another one.

[00:04:16] Michelle: Well why, why do they get off of the website, so that nobody else can see that this could be a scam?

[00:04:19] Patricia: Right.

[00:04:20] Michelle: Okay.

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[00:04:21] Michelle: But at the time, Patricia doesn't think anything of it. Here was Jeff, an independent diamond dealer living only an hour and a half away in California, and he, too, has an international background, part Italian, part Venezuelan. He's handsome and smart and interesting. And he seems really into her.

[00:04:41] Patricia: And then like, "oh, you're so beautiful (inaudible)," and, of course, I'm getting out of a divorce, and I'm like, "You call me beautiful?" I, like I say that I'm a very smart person, I'm very well put together, but something that happens to you emotionally when you go through a divorce and when somebody comes to you and they pamper you and give you all the sweet words, you’re like, well, hey, okay. I'm, I'm eating them up. The next thing I know, it was like very, he was so good, like crusty good, and he was like, "Oh, in case I ever lose my phone and I don't want to lose contact with you, this is my email," and he gave me his email address. I told him where I live, so he knew where I lived. He so was precise at telling me, "Oh, I'm just so and so many minutes away from you. “And looking on the map, it actually was.

[00:05:32] Michelle: Patricia is not one to just fall head over heels, and she's checking out the things this guy says. Not long after they start getting to know each other, Jeff tells Patricia he needs to go on a business trip to Dubai. He tells her when he's driving to the airport and the timing is right on. She even researches his flight when it would take off and land. It all checks out perfectly. There was really no reason at this point for any suspicion, and they were getting along like they had known each other for ages.

[00:06:01] Michelle: How often were you in contact? Were you texting every day?

[00:06:04] Patricia: Every day? So many times in a day.

[00:06:07] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:06:07] Patricia: What did I like about him? Apart from the looks, because remember, he sent me pictures, he would send me pictures of him. He was an alpha male to some extent, yet soft. I am a little bit more of an alpha woman, go figure, and so I like somebody who can challenge me, so I think he studied that, and he knew that part. He would know how to do that, not in a commanding way, but yet in a gentle way.

[00:06:35] Michelle: Got it.

[00:06:36] Patricia: And almost as if he's suggesting something that I then end up doing, and yet it was his idea. (giggle)

[00:06:45] Michelle: So he seemed like s smart guy.

[00:06:47] Patricia: He did.

[00:06:49] Michelle: They have long, deep phone conversations. Jeff is also, though, pretty early on, kind of possessive of Patricia. Doesn't want her to go out with other people, even though they had never met.

[00:07:01] Patricia: He would say, "Oh, but you're my woman now. I don't want you to be out in the night, and, and you know what, try to be back home early." I'm like, "Okay." He would be like, "Can you try to be home by 9 o'clock? You’re my woman, I don't want you to be out there." I guess him saying, you're my woman made me feel cuddled up or what, I don't know. So I was like, okay, so I made sure at 9 o'clock I'm in the house now. Anybody that knows me knows 9 o'clock can never be a time for me at home.

[00:07:29] Michelle: How soon did you start to feel feelings of love towards this person?

[00:07:34] Patricia: Within like just two weeks maybe, I would say within two weeks, because he would, let me give you this example. I am very from the affectionate side, I'm very touchy, touchy, feely kind of person, so he would know how to hug you online if that makes sense.

[00:07:53] Michelle: Sure.

[00:07:54] Patricia: Like he would know how to embrace you, and make you feel like you’re protected, and you're cuddled, and you feel like, yeah. So he knew how to do that without physically doing it and it, it was like, okay, this is good, so it was quick.

[00:08:09] Michelle: So he says he's a diamond dealer, um, and he needs to travel. Did any of that, at the time, seem too good to be true?

[00:08:19] Patricia: No, because like I say, I had never dealt with online scams at all.

[00:08:23] Michelle: Even at this point though, just as Patricia is starting to feel those early butterflies of love, some of her same pals who had encouraged her to try online dating are getting a little bit worried about this Jeff.

[00:08:37] Patricia: They're like, "Oh, this sounds too good to be true, but you sound so happy," so they kind of let it me. "Man, he sounds fake, but okay." I was too happy for them to then bring me down.

[00:08:47] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:08:47] Patricia: 'Cause they had dealt with me being, having gone through the separation, the divorce part.

[00:08:51] Michelle: Oh...

[00:08:52] Patricia: ...they dealt with me through that, so they're like, oh, we'd better support her.

[00:08:56] Michelle: And then Jeff leaves for this business trip to the Middle East.

[00:08:59] Patricia: And so he told me, "Oh, it's going to take 15 hours before I talk to you, because I'm going to be online." It does take 15 hours from where our airport is to where he was going. So like, I would check out these things, and they matched, and I remember when he would send me some pictures, I would kind of critically look at the picture, I'm like, let me see his glasses, let me see his hair, let me see his, to make sure if this here is a different person, or is it somebody that looks kind of close. So I did a little bit of that, what you call due diligence, but everything was the same, but it kind of gradually put my guard down as well.

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[00:09:35] Michelle: It feels right and good, but as with most scams, along comes one day, when Jeff has a problem.

[00:09:44] Patricia: So when he arrived in Dubai, he was doing so well, and he's sending me these pictures of him staying in the big hotels and just FYI, he told me he's a millionaire dealer, so he's sending me big pictures, and he's one, in one of those palaces or something. Then he's, you know, after this, he's like, "Oh, you know what, I think I'm in trouble." I'm like, " Well what do you mean you're in trouble?"

[00:10:07] Michelle: Jeff tells Patricia that he had bought some diamonds, but then was stopped and detained at the airport. Officials telling him he didn't have the proper authentication for the stones. They might not be real. This is a big deal.

[00:10:20] Patricia: Now, I went into panic mode. Of course it's like, oh my god, this is my man that they caught, 'cause, he was, "Oh, I'm going to come, (giggle) I'm going to come back, I'm going to take you out, we're going to watch this movie, we're going to watch these (inaudible)," I'm like, I'm excited. So now he calls me and he's like, "Oh, they caught me, and they've withheld all the diamonds and they're demanding money. I need you to send in $900 because they have said I need to bail myself out, otherwise the person who gave me the wrong certificate has run away, so I don't know how to get a hold of him, so can you help me?"

[00:10:53] Michelle: It's panic. Jeff is supposed to be coming home the next day. He and Patricia were going to meet for the first time. They had a massage planned at a spa and a movie date. Patricia has been beside herself with anticipation and joy, about to see her love in person at last. And now that was all replaced with worry and urgency to get this solved.

[00:11:18] Patricia: I didn't even think twice. I'm like, "Oh yeah, yeah, sure. Where, where can I send the money?" He's like, "Send it to my office," and he gave me the number and this the person, go ahead and send it, use MoneyGram only because we'll, and then I'll pay it back to you when they come in." Now, just so you know, that was my rent money. It was supposed to pay my rent. In my head, I'm already fallen for this person.

[00:11:39] Patricia: She sends it to Jeff's supposed friend in the US. Crisis averted. But then, Jeff tells Patricia that while the police in Dubai have released him, they're still keeping his diamonds until they can be authenticated. So after all that, he needs to stay there to sort this out.

[00:11:57] Patricia: I'm like, "Oh, okay, okay, sure." And then I started slowly but I don't know if it's God's way of helping me here, I guess. Then he started asking me, "Oh, by the way, um, yeah, I need to move out of my hotel because they've frozen all my bank accounts, so I need to go into some cheap hotel, but I ran out of money, they've frozen all my accounts and everything. Can you send me some money?" At that time he needed $400. So I was like, wait, $400? You're a millionaire, you cannot have your friend, your millionaire friends to actually help you? And I asked him that, and he was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but this is embarrassing, so I cannot put that in, because business deals can go down if you've kind of fallen short, and they know that you're supposed to be a millionaire, and then you tell them you've lost your good value, you lose your market down the road. So please, help me out if you can."

[00:12:48] Michelle: So he had an excuse for everything.

[00:12:51] Patricia: Oh, please, he had a good explanation for everything. But that second time is when I started putting my head up. I'm like, "Listen, you tell me you're a millionaire, you do not have any single friend that can give you money, $400, to actually live in a decent hotel?"

[00:13:08] Michelle: So Patricia has already sent him her rent money, nearly $1000. Now she wires $400 more. And even though she loves and trusts this person so far, that one more ask for more cash is what it takes for her to start coming out of the rose-colored dream fog of a new relationship. Somehow, her guard goes back up. Patricia now has a request, really a demand, of her own. She needs to see him, live, on the phone, now. What Jeff shows her, though, are more excuses.

[00:13:47] Patricia: "Oh, listen, so I don't have a video. My phone is not that kind of phone. Um, my phone is a little cheap one." I'm thinking, wait, you're a millionaire and you have a cheap phone? You don't have a video? So everything started up. When I kept asking him those things, they started really putting together.

[00:14:02] Michelle: Ah.

[00:14:04] Patricia: Then I started saying, "Look, you know what, you owe it to me to actually talk to me on video. How can I..." now remember, almost we're hitting a month at this time.

[00:14:12] Michelle: So you, you had only known him for a month when this happened.

[00:14:15] Patricia: At this time, um-hmm.

[00:14:17] Michelle: Meanwhile, there in California, Patricia's friends are confused and worried. They've been practically begging her to get rid of Jeff. They smell a scam even without knowing all the details.

[00:14:30] Patricia: Just so you know, I kind of broke up with my friends just for a little bit because they were really pushing me not to talk to him over the phone. I even didn't tell them that I sent money to him, (inaudible), slapped me silly. They gave me three warnings. First of all, they say, "You haven't seen him, make sure you insist on video." I said okay. "Never talk to somebody who asks you for money." I said okay. "Be careful if it's somebody online because there, there are many scammers out there." I was like, "Okay." Like, first of all, I come from a background of trusting people like, I wouldn't believe you would do something hurtful to me, like I come from that kind of mindset.

[00:15:08] Michelle: Oh, yeah.

[00:15:09] Michelle: Patricia is a very giving, charitable person. She comes from a kind family. She says when her marriage broke down in a mess of deception, her mother apologized to her for raising her to be so trusting and accepting of people. So she says it wasn't even Jeff's asking for money in a tough situation that bothered her the most. For her, it was the lack of contact, no video, and his trip home just kept getting delayed and delayed and postponed again.

[00:15:38] Patricia: I kept asking him, "Well, well why don't you, why don't you want to see me?" And I'm like, "This is unfair that you're making me fall in love with you, and you don't even want to let me see you and everything else."

[00:15:47] Michelle: The last straw for Patricia comes when she tells him she's excited for him to meet her mother.

[00:15:52] Patricia: And he, almost like jumped up. "No, you cannot tell your mom. You cannot tell your friends about us. You cannot..." I'm like, "Well, well, okay, okay." He's like, "No, you can't." Then he caught himself, "No, okay, no, no, no. Well, you know, why don't tell your mom because I want it to be a surprise, you know, I want it to be like," as I, hmmm.

[00:16:12] Michelle: That was it. Inside her mind something has to happen here.

[00:16:17] Patricia: So then I demanded. So I said, "Listen, that was my money for my rent that I gave you. I'm going to be evicted out of my apartment because I gave you that money. I need to see you. I demand to see you on video." I said, "Listen, I'm going to talk to you, I'm not going to text you until you put on video."

[00:16:34] Michelle: Remarkably, and remember this is a scammer Patricia is talking to, this seems to work.

[00:16:41] Patricia: So then he actually switched and said, "Okay, well, okay, so let me ask my friend to make sure that I get to see you and use their video and get to see you."

[00:16:50] Michelle: But while this conversation's going on, Patricia hears something in the background that grabs deep into her memory, snaps her out of any remaining shred of devotion to this person. It was...(rooster crowing)...roosters, crowing somewhere behind him. Somehow, she just can't reconcile roosters with a swanky hotel in Dubai.

[00:17:14] Patricia: I'm like, wait a minute. African. We know those things very well. (giggles) And the next thing, I was like, "You know what, okay, you do not want to see me. You don't want to talk to me, I'm not going to talk to you anymore. I demand..."

[00:17:28] Michelle: By now she is so convinced this is all wrong that she knows she needs to change tact. She decides instead to sweet talk this liar and criminal into showing his face.

[00:17:41] Patricia: And I started soothing his ego. "Oh, you know what, I don't care who you are. I just fell for you. It's the voice, it's the words, it's you. I don't care who you are, how you look like, it's you that I want," and you know, and then he hesitated but I made my feminine side of me stand up so well. "I just wanted to call you and just say I love you." And I'm like, oh my God, I'm marrying this guy, you know.

[00:18:05] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:18:06] Patricia: So he would know the good things to say, so when he, when I needed to switch on him, I kept reminding him of those things that he did that made me fall for him. "I don't care about who you are or anything, this is who I fell for and everything." And he ate it up.

[00:18:23] Michelle: Jeff listens, and it finally works.

[00:18:28] Patricia: And he put his ugly face on video. (laugh). I looked at him and he was all, you know, he was all puffed up and he, you know, how you sleep with your legs up and your hand on the chair feeling like you're the boss. Oh, I put him down very quickly.

[00:18:44] Michelle: That's amazing.

[00:18:46] Michelle: Not only was Jeff not the man whose photos he had sent to Patricia all these weeks, he was clearly somewhere in Africa in some nondescript, dingy, scam office, dedicated to hurting who knows how many people just like her.

[00:19:01] Patricia: I was not happy. I was not happy. I was like, listen, first of all, he was almost like a kid. If anything, he was like 32 years old. And I was like, yeah, the person who has been actually playing on my mind and he looked like this and I was angry, I put him in his place, I had to discredit himself to him...(giggle)...in not the best way. So he was wearing glasses, that you could see he was scratching his head, and he even had to take his glasses off, it's like, oh my God.

[00:19:32] Michelle: How did you feel at that moment? It must have broken your heart to know that this person you loved was not the person you thought.

[00:19:40] Patricia: I had come out of a divorce, and it was a betrayal for the person that I thought he was, but he was not.

[00:19:46] Michelle: I'm sorry.

[00:19:47] Patricia: So, it did, but maybe for like a second. I don't think it lasted long. So when I saw him, it didn't even feel sad. I felt blame for a little bit, and then I got over that, because I don't allow myself to stay there in self-blaming.

[00:20:03] Michelle: Good for you.

[00:20:03] Patricia: Then it was like, okay, okay, okay. It was like, oh, you're good. So I went back into the mode, I'm like, "You're good." So I started...

[00:20:09] Michelle: Did he, did he apologize? Did he say anything?

[00:20:13] Patricia: Yes, he did.

[00:20:14] Michelle: Oh wow.

[00:20:15] Michelle: Patricia has gotten this scammer to turn his video on, turn it around and show himself, tell her about himself. But she wants more. She wants to know how he did this, how he made her fall in love and was able to manipulate her so quickly.

[00:20:32] Patricia: You were so good. Tell me exactly how, I mean, you told me the distance between Morgan Hill and the airport. You told me the delayed flight. You had showed me all these pictures of you. You did... tell me." He's like, "Well, we do have a warehouse here," and he told me the country, and "we have a warehouse here and we sit, and we get to do the map. We literally study people." I was like, "Ah, so then you studied me." He's like, "Yeah. So I had to know what you like, I had to know this, and I had to really... and then we get to hear the way you talk to understand the kind of person you are, to know how to play around with you."

[00:21:08] Michelle: Oh God. Did he seem to feel sorry at all?

[00:21:12] Patricia: He did. He did afterwards. He was like, "I am so sorry, but you know, I feel that I love, I feel..." And he, because even almost for, I want to say for about a month, he kept trying to get in touch and calling and texting and all that. So I blocked him. I blocked him.

[00:21:30] Michelle: Fake Jeff continues to try to talk to Patricia through other numbers. It takes a long time for her to finally shake this guy.

[00:21:38] Michelle: Do you think that he fell in love with you, too?

[00:21:42] Patricia: (sigh) Eww, I have not allowed myself to think that. Being deceived a few times, once you show me lies, I don't know how to get over it.

[00:21:55] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:21:56] Patricia: Like I will see you as a liar, period.

[00:21:58] Michelle: Right.

[00:21:58] Patricia: But the experience side of me is getting to see a different side, and you know, even at one point, believe you me, I felt sorry for him, because I was like, I know life is hard enough.

[00:22:09] Michelle: All told, this online relationship, while intense, lasted about 2½ months.

[00:22:15] Michelle: You could say that you got off easy compared to some people for whom this goes on for years.

[00:22:20] Patricia: Oh yeah. Um-hmm. And I would say thankfully because of my friends who insisted I get to see him, but also, like I mentioned before, my tendency or my personality, I am very much a lovey, dovey, huggy, huggy kind of person, so I was starting to feel the detachment of I can't see you, I, I mean I want to be able to see you.

[00:22:44] Michelle: So you must be able to understand very well now how someone, even a very smart person, can get sucked into something like this.

[00:22:53] Patricia: This actually gets into you being a human being. All of us are created with a desire to be loved, to be understood, so it goes beyond being smart. Because you're smart, yes. I'm a neuroscientist, yes, I am this, right. You're smart in your book learning, or when you sit down in your office, everybody's like, you're good. But it goes from there into the inner side of you of I'm a human being that wants to be loved.

[00:23:17] Michelle: Since this experience, Patricia has actually encountered two more romance scammers online. She says one was just a week before we spoke to her.

[00:23:27] Michelle: Oh, and you could just tell, you could tell instantly?

[00:23:30] Patricia: Oh, please. No, now I demand for a video in a heartbeat.

[00:23:34] Michelle: The red flags that she sees now are the scammers wanting you to communicate off the dating website right away. And the ones who shower you with complements, like they're head over heels in love quickly.

[00:23:46] Michelle: So what advice would you give to people who are online, like you said, looking for love, looking to be loved.

[00:23:53] Patricia: Right. One, don't give up on love, because we've also heard sexist stories, okay? But have your guard up five, six, ten times high. Have everybody guilty until proven innocent.

[00:24:07] Michelle: Imagine pouring your heart out, your deepest thoughts and secrets to someone who isn't even real. Patricia sees those conversations with Jeff so much differently now.

[00:24:17] Michelle: Did he say that he was divorced, too, or did he have children?

[00:24:21] Patricia: No, he told me his wife died.

[00:24:24] Michelle: Oh, okay.

[00:24:25] Patricia: (laugh)

[00:24:26] Michelle: Now you laugh, like hah!

[00:24:27] Patricia: Oh, I said, oh no! (laugh) I know. They are so good. They're like, they make up stories that make your heart feel like, oh, I'm so sorry, okay, come here, puppy. Come here.

[00:24:38] Michelle. Exactly. What do you think about someone who does this, who would do this to another person?

[00:24:45] Patricia: I see them as ruthless, but, but, but the other side of me also sees them as a person who is really disturbed, because there are some things you don't want to play around. You don't want to play on somebody's heart who wants to go be loved.

[00:24:58] Michelle: It's so cruel.

[00:25:00] Patricia: Uh, it, it makes, it is cruel, but it makes you, one thing I've learned in life is um, in order for you to heal, or to become the best person you can be, you can never point the finger on one side. You always have to point it two ways. I look at the other one as somebody who scammed me, but I look back at myself and said, what is it in me that was lacking that I had to fall for that scam? So I, if I'm to tell that to any woman out there, you love you first before you go out and seek love from any other person.

[00:25:34] Michelle: Thank you so, so much.

[00:25:37] Patricia: Thank you.

[00:25:37] Michelle: And great luck to you.

[00:25:39] Patricia: Thank you.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:25:43] Michelle: She's so adorable, and just wants to find someone nice to settle down with like so many others who have been poisoned by these experiences, just when they start to open their hearts. So let's bring in someone who knows a lot about these scams. You might even say they're one of his specialties, Dr. Justin Lehmiller, Social Psychologist at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute which studies relationships and sexuality.

[00:26:08] Michelle: Well you really have the fun part of psychology, don't you?

[00:26:11] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: I do.

[00:26:12] Michelle: So romance scams. We see so many of these.

[00:26:16] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: That's not really surprising to me, because people have such a fundamental and deep need for social and intimate connection with others. And so, if you have people who are really desperate to make a connection, it really creates this place where they're very vulnerable to falling for a variety of scams, because they're, they're tapping into these very deep insecurities, wants, and needs that they have.

[00:26:42] Michelle: As complex as human beings are, that's a very simple kind of setting for these things to take root, isn't it, that we all just want to love and be loved.

[00:26:54] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: It's true, and there are actually really two things going on here. One is that we have what social psychologists call the need to belong, and it is such a powerful need that when it is not met, we suffer a variety of negative, physical, and psychological effects. But there's another key factor involved here, which is that when people start to feel the initial twinge of passion, it leads us to act irrationally where people might be ignoring these warning flags that otherwise they might give them serious pause or reservations.

[00:27:28] Michelle: Why does passion do that to people?

[00:27:31] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: So we've got all of this stuff going on biologically that's, that's sort of helping to create these blinders, because we are consumed by sexual arousal and by this, this new connection that we've developed to someone else.

[00:27:46] Michelle: I was really surprised when you hear people's stories, and your heart just goes out to them. How is that possible? How is that possible to fall in love that quickly with someone you've never been in the same room with?

[00:27:59] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: Right, so that, that's an interesting question, because we've all heard the phrase, "love at first sight." But if you haven't met someone, can, can you actually develop that, that same sort of feeling? And I, I think there is some truth to that because what we're talking about here is just this feeling of connectedness to another person, and we don't have to have physically interacted with them to develop really strong feelings for another person. Emotional intimacy is a really big part of our attraction and the development of passion, so it, it's not surprising that, that this happens where people can develop this really strong attachment right away in a purely online environment, because it's fundamentally all about how does the other person make us feel?

[00:28:49] Michelle: Dr. Lehmiller says it's not just lonely people who can fall victim to these scams, it's not necessarily a cause and effect that the more lonely someone feels, the more vulnerable they are.

[00:29:00] Michelle: When someone has been through a very emotional time in their lives, there's some, some major change, does that make them more susceptible to something like this?

[00:29:09] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: It can, and this is particularly true when you say, have somebody who was in a long-term relationship or marriage with the love of their life, and that person passes away or the relationship ends. In these cases, the individual can feel like they've lost their entire life, because we invest so much of ourselves in our relationships.

[00:29:36] Michelle: And when I read people's stories, when you're just reading it off a piece of paper, you, you think, okay, red flag, red flag, but then when you talk to the person at length, and they take you through every step of the story, you completely get it, you understand how this happened and in many cases, they were being suspicious at key points. But the scammer found the right answers.

[00:30:05] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: Yeah, and the scammers are getting more sophisticated, and many of them have had a lot of practice, and so they've dealt with suspicious people before. They can try and anticipate what the other person's moves are going to be, what their questions are going to be, and throw out some information that, that's going to provide some comfort or reassurance to them without raising further red flags.

[00:30:31] Michelle: And once someone starts feeling the pangs of love in a relationship, how hard is it to convince them that it's not real, and why?

[00:30:42] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: It's very hard, and I can think of, you know, anecdotally examples in my own life. For example, a, a family member of mine who met someone, and they got engaged in just a couple of weeks, and just shortly after that flew to Las Vegas and got married, um, but within a year they were divorced. And it was because they were acting very impulsively in the throes of early passion, not really thinking everything through, not paying attention to all the red flags that were coming up. You know, we tried to, to provide this person with some, you know, caution, like hey, maybe you want to slow down a little bit, there's no reason to rush things here, but they didn't listen. And, and, and that's true for a lot of people in these passionate relationships, is that you’re just totally blinded by your desire for this other person and the intense feelings that they give you.

[00:31:33] Michelle: Everybody can be susceptible to that, can't they?

[00:31:36] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: Absolutely. It's, it's not a matter of intelligence, it's not a matter of age, it's not a matter of gender. Passion just has this way of affecting us very intensely, and, and also when we have that need for belongingness that we're really striving to meet, again, that can lead us to do things that are impulsive that we might not otherwise do and that might not be rational.

[00:31:59] Michelle: Yeah, it's one thing to be burned in love and have that be devastating, but it's another thing to think you're in love with somebody and then find out that that's not a real person. Can this really affect someone long term emotionally?

[00:32:14] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: It certainly does to some degree, because when we have somebody who seriously takes advantage of us, a lot of us have a tendency to blame ourselves and say what was wrong with me for not picking up on that sooner. And so it's, it's really the self-blame, I think, that can be really toxic in these cases, and that can lead to the long term damage and having a very hard time opening up to others again.

[00:32:42] Michelle: Yeah, 'cause it's, it's almost like the person you thought you were in love with has died or something, like they've disappeared.

[00:32:48] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: Yeah, and, you know, something else that this is bringing to mind for me, is that sometimes when people are engaging with somebody who is taking advantage of them, sometimes they don't want to discover the truth. And they themselves sort of actively put the blinders on because if they discover the reality that's going to reflect poorly on them in some way. And so sometimes people are more comfortable kind of living with the lie rather than finding out the truth, because the truth sometimes is, is so devastating to our own self-esteem.

[00:33:26] Michelle: Wow. That's really interesting. And, and you can understand how that would happen. Um, another thing that I wanted to ask you is, what kind of person does this to someone, and repeatedly? What, what is it in their psychology that allows them to do this to another human being?

[00:33:44] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: For one, probably a lack of empathy and inability to truly feel and understand and relate to other people's emotional states. We see this in the case of a lot of people who are convicted of, of various crimes, is that there's a real lack of empathy. Another though is that there's probably a lot of financial desperation on the part of some of these individuals which may lead them to, even if they feel empathy, to, to overlook it. I think some of them try and find ways to rationalize their behavior, and so maybe they only target people that they think are very financially well off, and think of it as a victimless crime, because they have more money than they need.

[00:34:32] Michelle: Well, Doctor, thank you so much.

[00:34:33] Dr. Justin Lehmiller: Well thank you, I appreciate it, and it was fun to be on.

[00:34:36] Michelle: His expert advice: number one, slow down in relationships. Slow way down. Be cautious and ask other people for advice, because once your eyes have turned to heart emojis and you’re following that sparkly rainbow of love, anyone might miss all the signs along the way that it's your pot of gold the scammer is pursuing.

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[00:35:02] Michelle: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can help you know what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez; and of course, Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Michelle Kosinski.

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AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free “watchdog alerts," review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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