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Recognizing the Red Flags in an Online Romance

In part 2 of this episode, one grandmother learns of her role in a larger fraud scheme

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Annie and her children think the worst of the romance scam is over, until she comes home to flowers on her doorstep. Annie assumes they’re from Mark, the man she has learned is a con artist. But the flowers are addressed to a woman named Sasha, and sent by a man Annie’s never heard of. As Annie looks into the mysterious delivery, she and her family discover this scam is bigger and more dangerous than they ever imagined. 

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(MUSIC SEGUE)

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

[00:00:04] The way I found out about the girl initially was he called and said, "Hey, what do you know about Steam cards? And what do you know about Google Play cards?" And it, the red flags just went up immediately.

[00:00:22] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I’m your host, Michelle Kosinski, and last week we led you through the story of Annie from the Midwest who, after 35 years of marriage found herself suddenly alone at home every day. Her husband now in a nursing home with dementia. Annie started looking for some basic companionship and conversation and was surprised to meet someone online on the site Plenty of Fish, someone who appeared to be a kind, thoughtful architect based in California.

[00:00:55] Annie: Very smooth, um, very patient, you know, just little pieces at a time.

[00:01:01] Michelle: A man she really felt she was getting to know, over a year's time. But sure enough, since this is The Perfect Scam, things started to get strange. When he asked Annie to accept donations for an orphanage he said he and his late wife had started in Africa, and he had an elaborate excuse every time they were supposed to meet in real life.

[00:01:25] Annie: This guy is Academy Award material.

[00:01:28] Michelle: You really need to listen to that last episode and hear Annie tell this in her own words. But where we left off, this supposed architect man of her dreams was using her bank account to take supposed donations which she was then converting into bit coin and sending to his account while he was supposedly traveling. Annie's adult kids got wind of all this, had had enough and had just presented Annie with a tough ultimatum; give up entirely this man that she, by then loved and saw a future with, or lose all contact with her beloved children and grandchildren. For Annie though, it was a no-brainer. She agreed to quit her online relationship cold turkey from that day this past January.

[00:02:15] Michelle: So days pass -- does it take all of your strength not to text this person or return his calls?

[00:02:22] Annie: It didn't. The price was way too high, and I got in... between 6 in the morning and 9 in the morning, I got 35 texts and 15 unanswered phone calls.

[00:02:36] Michelle: You're a strong person to not pick up that phone. And as days are ticking by and you don't have the companionship of Mark, is there something in your mind that says, well, I still want to believe that what he's saying is true?

[00:02:53] Annie: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

[00:02:55] Michelle: It's hard to break that off, isn't it?

[00:02:57] Annie: It's really hard to shut it off because you think, what, you know, 'cause you'd look at this picture and you'd think, what if they're wrong? And then, you start thinking, so, if this is not this person, who is this guy? And, and I'd like to meet him. (chuckle)

[00:03:18] Michelle: And the kind of messages Annie and Mark were exchanging every day before this were deeply personal. They'd talk on the phone too, a few times a week, hour-long conversations. Here's one actual text Mark had sent her voiced by one of our staffers.

[00:03:34] "It's the start of the day and I was thinking about you, as usual. I want you to know how much I sincerely love the times we've spent talking. It means so much to me. It truly seems like I've known you forever, and I honestly can't imagine life without you now. There will be no looking back, no second thoughts, and no regrets. I want you and need only you, and that love will only grow stronger. Do not be scared, my love, sometimes life hits you with unexpected things that take you totally by surprise. All I can say is, you're the best surprise life has given me, and your capacity for love, caring, and understanding never ceases to amaze me. I've truly been blessed by finding you, and I'll never let you go."

[00:04:31] Michelle: He invested a lot of time.

[00:04:33] Annie: Oh yeah, yeah, very sweet, never was not a gentleman, you know.

[00:04:39] Michelle: But something else was also happening. Around this same time, just before Annie's kids confronted her with their intervention of sorts, Annie got another package at her house.

[00:04:52] Annie: I came home from running errands, and there was this little bouquet of flowers. And it said a different person’s name on it, but my address. And I thought, that’s weird. And so I came in and the name of the woman on those flowers rang a bell, but I couldn’t connect it right away.

[00:05:18] Michelle: The flowers were for Sasha, and Annie started looking in the right direction, Mark's architecture website. Sure enough, listed as the company's accountant is this beautiful, smiling young woman in a white tank with long, flowing dark hair named Sasha. Just before Annie cut off all contact with Mark, she had asked him about this. Why would she be getting Sasha's flowers at her house? And Mark told her Sasha had probably just used Annie's address because some guy was trying to send her flowers or something, and she just wanted to get rid of him. That might have been the end of it, but wait, there's more. Annie starts getting cards and letters addressed to Sasha from someone named William. But this is just a minor annoyance for Annie at this point who, by now, after her kids gave her that ultimatum, had cut off all contact with Mark, frozen her bank account that she used for him, and called her local sheriff about this whole thing. She was doing her best to ignore Mark's constant calls and voice mails, emails, texts saying things like...

[00:06:28] "I am finding it difficult to believe that you, of all people, blocked me. Such a cold world. I still love you, and if you ever change your mind, you know where to find me. Your forever love, Mark."

[00:06:42] Michelle: You can imagine the pain for the woman who thought she knew this man. But Annie soon had a new creepy twist to contend with. Yes, another one.

[00:06:52] Annie: There was a message on my machine at home saying, “This is, my name is such and such, and I know this is an odd phone call, but I would like to give some information about an individual who says they’re living at your address.” And he left a phone number, and I was cautious because my kids said, you know, “Be careful who you talk to, because it might be somebody that he has connected to trying to get back at you,” because I had not answered the phone or text messages.

[00:07:27] Michelle: Sure.

[00:07:28] Annie: And so I really thought about it, I listened to the message over and over. There was definitely a smooth Southern accent, you know, American Southern accent, and so I thought, okay, so I’ll take a chance. So I called this person and he explained that he was calling on behalf of his uncle who had been in touch with this woman who gave my address as her home and that I was her aunt. And so I gave him the name, and he was stunned.

[00:08:02] Michelle: And he was sending cards to this Sasha person. Was Sasha also looking for money?

[00:08:09] Annie: Apparently. And the person I talked to in the South was not the person who sent the flowers.

[00:08:15] Michelle: Right. So that must have been the realization, like you are the hub...

[00:08:20] Annie: Yeah.

[00:08:21] Michelle: ...for multiple scams.

[00:08:22] Annie: Yeah, I did not sign up for this.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:08:29] Michelle: The man on the phone told Annie his uncle Eldridge had fallen in love online with a woman named Sasha, and remember, this is a different man from the William who was also sending flowers and cards to Sasha. So, this means Annie unwittingly became the hub, the laundress of the proceeds of all these other love scams. The donations for that African orphanage pouring into Annie's bank account over a year, about $34,000 worth, now seemed to have been from men generously sending it to someone they thought they cared for. This wasn't one scam, it was many scams all rolled into one, and though Annie didn't give much of her own money, the scammers used her to collect and launder all their dirty earnings from who knows how many other broken hearts.

[00:09:26] Todd: I've seen a lot of scams, and this one was way superior to anything I've ever seen.

[00:09:34] Michelle: Todd Young, a Louisiana financier, told about his uncle, 76-year-old Eldridge who lives down the street from him. He was married for decades but after a difficult divorce, he, like Annie, found himself jarringly alone. So Todd looks after him as much as he can. On his own, Eldridge also decided to try out this new online world of dating, just to find someone to talk to and share life with. Simply to love and be loved.

[00:10:04] Todd: He really just started focusing on, you know, finding companionship.

[00:10:09] Michelle: And did he tell you, "I've met this amazing woman online."

[00:10:14] Todd: He showed me the pictures, and, and I looked at the pictures and I said, "This is, you know, I'm just going to be honest with you, this girl is out of my league. And I still think I have it, you know, I, I still think I'm, you know, I still think I've got some gas in the tank, so to speak."

[00:10:36] Michelle: Oh... well that, that's a tough thing to have to tell somebody.

[00:10:40] Todd: It, it really is. Um...

[00:10:41] Michelle: Did he get mad?

[00:10:42] Todd: But you know, the truth, you know, needs to be said, I think in, in a lot of instances.

[00:10:45] Michelle: Sasha had told Eldridge she lived at Annie's address and worked for Mark's architectural firm. So you can see how this was all intricately connected, so that when Eldridge or his nephew looked up the architect's website, there was, indeed, this picture of a beautiful woman named Sasha among the staff. The two of them, Sasha and Eldridge, talked all day for days about everything. Sasha was exotic and entrancing, even related to royalty she said, and was a good listener. Soon, she was telling Eldridge she loved him, that she could see them being together forever, that that's what she wanted. Once Eldridge showed his nephew the photos, Todd was instantly suspicious, but Eldridge was lovestruck.

[00:11:33] Michelle: So did it just take, you know, a short time for him to feel like he, he had fallen head over heels for this person?

[00:11:39] Todd: I think within four days he had asked her to marry him.

[00:11:45] Michelle: Wow.

[00:11:46] Todd: Sasha sent him a bouquet of flowers the following day saying, "I accept your marriage proposal." And at that point, I'm involved.

[00:11:55] Michelle: Sasha next told Eldridge, her mother fell off a ladder and was in the hospital in Ghana and was badly hurt, might even die, and the family couldn't afford the $2800 surgery.

[00:12:08] Todd: He called and said, "Hey, what do you know about Steam cards? And what do you know about Google Play cards?" And it, the red flags just went up immediately.

[00:12:21] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:12:22] Todd: And I said, "Are, are you a PC gamer? Do you need Steam cards?" And he said, "I don't even know where they are, that's why I'm calling you."

[00:12:30] Michelle: Eldridge had gone to his bank to try to get money out and buy these cards to send to poor Sasha, but the bank, sensing a scam, had stopped him from doing it. And by now, only 4 days into knowing about this online relationship, Todd had had more than enough of this woman.

[00:12:48] Todd: I said, "Okay, I'll tell you what." And I had taken him to the police station, who said, "This is a, this is just a total scam." I took him to the bank who would not let him withdraw $2,000 because he told him exactly what he was doing.

[00:13:08] Michelle: Many banks do now have guidelines in place to warn customers and help them stop suspected fraud. Some tellers even get special training, like through the AARP's Bank Safe Program. This time, the banks seemed to know immediately what was happening to Eldridge.

[00:13:25] Michelle: But even, it, it's stunning that even then, it's really hard to get somebody out of this.

[00:13:31] Todd: She called him. I got on the phone, and I said, "Hey, I know what you're doing." And I could hear the, I could hear the, the African accent.

[00:13:40] Michelle: Hmm.

[00:13:40] Todd: So I immediately knew just because of the, the field of business that I'm in, that this was, this was, this was gonna go bad.

[00:13:49] Michelle: Oh, gosh. Did, what did she say?

[00:13:54] Todd: I said, "I'm pretty sure, within 99.8% sure that, that you're getting scammed." And he said, "Well, you know, she's, she's not really asked me for a lot of money."

[00:14:11] Michelle: Oh... so when you, when you had this Sasha on the phone, this what, 30-year-old bombshell, is that what she presented herself as?

[00:14:20] Todd: And through, you know, Google reverse search, she is a well-known adult entertainment model.

[00:14:28] Michelle: This is something, by the way, anyone can do. On Google Images you can upload a photo and with one click search the internet for other places that same picture is being used.

[00:14:39] Michelle: So when get this person on the phone, does, does she sound like her picture? Does, does the voice match the photo?

[00:14:46] Todd: The voice does not match the photo.

[00:14:49] Michelle: When you confronted her on the phone, what did she say?

[00:14:53] Todd: Well, she hung up. Um, got angry, hung up, called my uncle back about an hour later and said, "Why is your nephew running your emotional life?"

[00:15:05] Michelle: Oh...

[00:15:06] Todd: And he's kind of all in on this girl at this point.

[00:15:11] Michelle: Todd clearly cares deeply for his uncle who's been suffering from diabetes and the start of Parkinson's Disease.

[00:15:17] Michelle: Did he get angry with you?

[00:15:19] Todd: Yes. I was kind of balking at his dream, so to speak.

[00:15:24] Michelle: Todd persisted though. He told his uncle, if he could get some proof that Sasha and her mother were real, Todd would even help him get the money to her. Eldridge did get the name of Sasha's mother, a doctor, and a hospital which Todd called, but there was no patient by that name there. Now Uncle Eldridge's bubble is finally starting to burst. And a day later, Todd got him to speak on the phone to Annie to help him see the light that sometimes the greatest online love of all really is too good to be true.

[00:16:00] Annie: It breaks my heart because we've had several conversations...

[00:16:06] Michelle: So now you're the one doing the intervention trying to wake up somebody else.

[00:16:10] Annie: Yes, yes, and he stepped in, the, the nephew stepped in, fortunately, and saved him. So um, but he, you know, it's like, well okay, so that was her, but there, there's, there's others, others out there.

[00:16:23] Michelle: But you must look at this uncle and say, "I was there, that was me." Now you, you get to see yourself.

[00:16:31] Annie: Yeah. and, you know, and I feel bad for him because I understand, he's alone, he's lonely, he's wanting that connection with another person. You want someone to witness your life, and that you can share with and that stuff, but I said, you know, I'm sorry, but, you know, a 30-year-old is not going to be your ticket to happiness.

[00:16:58] Michelle: It must be tough to see this happening.

[00:16:01] Todd: It's extremely difficult, because we want our loved ones to see what we see. But they don't always see what we see, which is why I think it's a good idea to have just a really strong solid support base of people behind you that can lead you in the right direction, in, in any manner of life, whether that's healthcare, you know, finances, whatever.

[00:17:28] Michelle: Sure. What do you think it's going to take to get your uncle away from this stuff?

[00:17:36] Todd: (sigh) That's a great question. He sees that this person is fraudulent...

[00:17:45] Michelle: I see.

[00:17:45] Todd: ...but that doesn't keep him from continuing to fish in the same shark-infested waters.

[00:17:51] Michelle: Got it.

[00:17:52] Michelle: Annie's online world came crashing down only weeks ago, and she has continued to get messages from this fake guy, Mark, only now they're not nearly so nice and imploring and loving. In fact, they're clearly threatening, and frankly, weirdly terrifying. In one he says,

[00:18:11] "It's better to be late than to be called the late Annie. Think about your family. This is not a warning, but you have been warned voodoo. I am saying no more."

[00:18:24] Michelle: He sent photos of an African witch doctor with potions and bones and what looks like blood spattered on the wall, spattered on photos of Annie, her family, and baby granddaughter that she had sent him. He threatens to destroy her family, that they will die one by one. Not exactly how she expected this deep love affair to end, and imagine your loved one or parent getting threats like this.

[00:18:52] Annie: I changed my emails; I blocked all the calls that come in on those numbers.

[00:18:57] Michelle: Are you frightened; you're not frightened of him.

[00:18:59] Annie: No. It rattles your cage, but you know, the sheriff, bless his heart, he has been absolutely fantastic to me and helped me through so much of this. And he said people get threats all the time on these kind of scams, and he said, "I've never had anything happen to anybody from those threats."

[00:19:27] Michelle: As heart wrenching as this all is, for all the families involved, it breaks your heart just hearing about it. You could say that Annie and even Uncle Eldridge are the lucky ones. That they both had families that stepped in forcefully, almost, and kept them from going any further. Neither of them lost tons of money, what could have been their life savings.

[00:19:48] Michelle: Down in Louisiana, Todd's Uncle Eldridge is doing his best to get over his heartbreak.

[00:19:54] Michelle: So he didn't lose money, but what does he lose from something like this?

[00:20:01] Todd: I think he loses hope. I think he loses, you know, the, the sense that there's good in humanity, the knowledge that someone his age could find a companion. You know, he's, he's lost the hope of that.

[00:20:16] Michelle: What do you think prevents somebody like your uncle from just going to the grocery store and chatting up someone, or going to the senior center, or the community park and, and trying to meet a real person?

[00:20:31] Todd: I have told him that I would go with him to do those things. I even took him to our local cafe where I know that all the elderly people meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. I took him over there, and I introduced him to everybody who said, "Hey, come back next week." You know, "We would be glad to have you." Then, you know, it seems he was fixated on finding this young woman who was out of his league.

[00:21:02] Michelle: So your heart must go out to all of the people, people just looking for love and companionship.

[00:21:09] Todd: You know I 100% feel for them, and I understand that, you know, they get lonely and they look for somebody to connect with. You know their children may have busy lives, and, you know, maybe not reach out to them or go over and spend time with them as much as they would like to. And so they get lonely and they kind of start looking around, and they decide that hey, a dating website might be a good place to go, and while it might be a good place to go, you have to also know that there are people there that are going to actively target you as a victim of a crime. It was so elaborate; it was so well thought out. Really what she was doing was just you know, saying, "I love you; I want to be with you forever," you know, just the typical bait that they would use on somebody who's vulnerable like that. But they had created a website, you know, they had done all kinds of really expensive things in order to make the story real.

[00:22:22] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:22:23] Todd: Every comeback that we had, there was an answer for it. Like it was scripted.

[00:22:31] Michelle: In a sense, the worst thing about it is not the money, it's the fact that they're preying on lonely people who want to love and be loved.

[00:22:40] Todd: Right. Right, that's all they're looking for. You know, that's what our loved ones are looking for. And on the other end, you have somebody that's telling them that that's what they're looking for, when really what they're doing is trying to empty their bank account.

[00:22:59] Michelle: Today, Annie has come out the other side, and she sounds like she's doing great. She lost what she thought was the love of her life and the spring in her step that came with that. After years of exhaustion and sadness, remember, she finally had a reason to dress up a little, have some confidence that everyone around her noticed. So now she's speaking out about all this, and has actually teamed up with her local sheriff's department to help warn other people and work with them to avoid this happening to them. She sounds really happy to find a positive goal out of all this horror.

[00:23:36] Annie: When you're in the situation I was in, my heart just overrode all of that. Because I had been without that care and affection for so many years, and that was what I was longing for. And one of the really good things that came from this experience was my son set up a message thing where my son and daughter-in-law and both of my daughters and I are all connected on, so I can write one thing, and everybody sees it. And I think that I didn't want to burden my adult kids with all the stuff I was going through, but I don't think I conveyed to them how alone and lonely I was.

[00:24:25] Michelle: Yeah, well it's, it's hard to admit that to, to people who love you, 'cause you don't want to make them feel bad.

[00:24:32] Annie: Yeah, yeah, and it's, you know, and two are in Wisconsin and my daughter's here, and she's working 60 hours a week, and everybody's busy, and I get it. And so, it was like I, you know, I'm not going to convey that to them, 'cause that just makes them feel bad that they didn't come to visit, and I don't want that. I don't want my kids to feel...

[00:24:49] Michelle: Yeah...

[00:24:49] Annie: ...like they have to go take care of Mom, you know, I'm fine, you know, and I didn't realize how not fine I was until this situation. But having that, we, we are all committed to being 100% honest with each other about everything, our feelings, where we're at, what hurts us, what bothers us.

[00:25:09] Michelle: That's wonderful. You've been through hell and back. You got a crash course in online dating, WhatsApp, uh, bit coin, and Face ID. You, you know it all.

[00:25:21] Annie: I’m really good at this.

[00:25:23] Michelle: So, Mark is in front of you, say, what, what do you say to this guy today after this year of rollercoaster, and hell, really?

[00:25:34] Annie: Um, I would probably tell him that I feel really bad for him. He had a verbal relationship with a really amazing woman. She is loving, she’s happy, she’s generous, she is full of love and loves everybody. She has a strong family base, she has a strong faith, and you blew it.

[00:26:06] Michelle: Out of her experience, she also has a much deeper communicative relationship with her children. But even now, there are dark reminders. She is still getting cards and gifts at her home sent by other lonely souls to names that are no more than scammers with dollar signs in their eyes and hungry bank accounts.

[00:26:28] Annie: There was a big teddy bear and three boxes of chocolates sitting on the front porch. I, I opened up the card and it said, “I love you now and forever,” and it just had XOXOXO. So the sheriff’s department got the three teddy bears that I ended up with, but I said, you know what, these are beautiful flowers, and those flowers instead of being a reminder of what I thought I lost, is a reminder to me of what’s ahead. I’m determined to not be a victim and to be the victor.

[00:27:05] Michelle: That is a beautiful, beautiful story.

[00:27:10] Annie: So I, I choose not to be a victim. And I, I think that in choosing not to be a victim, it allows me to help others with the story to not be victims. And if you’ve been a victim, then you can move on. It, it does not have to stop where you are. So we need to get to the victims before they become victims.

[00:27:37] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:27:37] Annie: And getting the word out there is the only way we can prevent it. It's one of those things. You know people laugh about, you know, karma and everything, but I grew up with, you know, "as you sow, so you reap." And if they are sowing heartbreak and dishonesty and those kinds of seeds, that's what, at some point they will reap that.

[00:28:02] Michelle: Take great care of yourself, and I hope we speak again sometime.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:28:07] Annie: I, I would love to, Michelle, and thank you so much for what you guys are doing.

[00:28:11] Michelle: Thank you.

[00:28:12] Michelle: An emotional rollercoaster with more seats than anyone expected, and plenty more cars just waiting to be filled. Let's talk to Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale now about all we've just heard, the elaborate nature of this. And, you know, they pulled out all the stops with this website and the gifts, the phone calls. It seems like a lot of work for not that much money, am I right?

[00:28:38] Frank Abagnale: Right, but there's a lot of people out there, and when you think about people who do this for a living, and keep in mind they're all over the world, it's not just one person. They might be taking that same approach and doing it with 30 or 50 people. We've actually seen romance scams double in the last uh 12 months. So those types of scams are getting very popular. And I always tells people, you never wire money or cash or put money on a gift card for someone you have met online. You know, the red flag is all of those things, is that no matter what's going on in the conversation or the so-called romance scam or someone you meet online, everything's fine till that person brings up the two red flags. At some point they're going to ask you to send them some money or they're going to start asking you for personal information like your bank account number or social security number, or credit card numbers. You know, in this scam we saw that, that, you know, they wanted to leave a dating site immediately, in a personal email, instant messaging to communicate with each other, that he professed his love too quickly to her, uh claims to be from the US, but he's traveling and working overseas, uh plans to visit but cancels at the last minute because of an event or a business deal gone sour. Asks for money for a variety of reasons; travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospital bills for a child, another relative, uh visas and official documents; All of these things should be huge red flags for people. And in this time and day and age with all of this going on, you have to even be double careful than you normally would under normal circumstances, and you have to be suspicious of anything that gets into you sending someone some money or giving someone some personal information that you don't really know and have just met online.

[00:30:26] Michelle: I'm amazed that you said that these things have doubled in the last year. That’s incredible to me. Why do you think they're exploding like this?

[00:30:35] Frank Abagnale: Because they work, and they play on people who are lonely and people who are sitting at home and they're on their internet and they're looking for people to have conversations with, and, you know, the internet makes it so easy, 'cause these things can go on; sometimes some of these romance scams for maybe six months or even a year before someone ever asks you for anything. So, you feel very comfortable. You’ve gotten to know them really well; you have the same interests. They sound like they're wonderful people, but you notice that they're not coming to see you, they're not arranging to have a meeting with you, and even if it goes on for a long period of time, at some point in that romance scam, they have to come to the point of asking you for money or information. And that's when you need to raise the red flag and simply say to yourself, yes, I've had a great relationship with this person on the phone and online, but I've actually never met them; I don't know who they really are. Should I be sending this person money? And you keep in mind, again, they're not just working you so that they're spending a whole year wasting time trying to get you so they can scam you, they've got maybe 50 or 100 other people they're working constantly, and sometimes it's a group of guys or women doing the same thing. We live in a world where it's not that difficult to check people out. You can google names, you can go to LinkedIn, you can look up a lot of things by just typing someone's name in and tracking back, is that person really who they say they are? Do they really work at that company? Are they married, not married? It's not that difficult to do. You can go to public records, you can go check a lot of things if you're a little bit suspicious, especially if you think they're starting to ask you for money or information.

[00:32:19] Michelle: One thing that I wonder about is, when you see the scammers going to these great lengths, and even coming up with fake websites, which isn't that uncommon, are they doing all of this because people are getting savvier to these romance scams? Or are they just getting better at their, at their fake jobs?

[00:32:39] Frank Abagnale: They're getting better at their fake jobs, and they will change, and they change the story or the approach a, a little bit. And that's why education is the most powerful tool to fighting these types of crimes. And that's why it is so important, the work that AARP does, the Fraud Watch Network does, the podcast does in helping to try and educate people so that they understand how these scams work, because once they hear it, they understand it.

[00:33:04] Michelle: Okay. So in this story, Frank, we saw Annie, even though her family was telling her these are red flags, these are red flags, one thing that kept her going was that the man never asked her for any money directly. He only had her taking these donations for his fake orphanage in Africa, so she felt like, well I'm not really losing anything, I'm just helping him out with these donations. He's not asking me for any money. But so often in these romance scams we see the person doing exactly that; being a mule, not the person who's giving the money, right?

[00:33:42] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.

[00:33:43] Michelle: So it's like it, even if they're not getting money from you, they could still use you to inadvertently launder money, and I know that the DOJ says this is pretty common in romance scams.

[00:33:55] Frank Abagnale: Right.

[00:33:55] Michelle: Also, I want to mention, we just heard from our friends over at the DOJ's Consumer Protection Branch, and they say unless a scammer's website is clearly, clearly fraudulent, which then the DOJ can just pull down right away, they generally fall into the Protected Free Speech category, so then it can take months, if not years, to gather proof and build a complex fraud case, even more complicated or even impossible when the perpetrators are in other countries which they very often are. But back to this case, this woman, Annie, thought she had vetted Mark pretty well through his website which, in no way looked fake, and then she became a mule without even knowing it. She thought she was taking donations for an orphanage. She thought she was helping people instead of hurting people. So even if you're not giving away your own money, you could still be, be doing something that is illegal technically and not even know it.

[00:34:54] Frank Abagnale: Yes, we actually had a romance scam on The Perfect Scam a while back, and where an individual that was confined to a wheelchair, an elderly gentleman, met a young girl who supposedly was in the real estate business, kind of became a romance scam, and then she asked him if he would go to Spain and pick up a package for her. And uh he, she would pay all of his travel expenses and hotel expenses and all that, and you know, he'd said to her, "Well, you know, I'm in a wheelchair," but she kind of convinced him, and he was romantically kind of involved with her on the, through the internet, and so he went ahead and went to Spain and picked up the package, and he was arrested by the authorities there and ended up in jail because of the contents of the package, and it took a lot of work from his son to get him out of jail. So yes, there are a lot of people who are used and not realize they're being used. You're part of the scam even though you don't know you’re part of the scam.

[00:35:51] Michelle: That is great information. Thanks so much, Frank. We'll see you next week.

[00:35:55] Frank Abagnale: Sounds good. See ya next week.

[00:35:57] 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. 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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