Romance scams now responsible for much larger losses, victims laundering money

Scammers are adding investment scams on top of their schemes to defraud lonely, elderly victims
Romance scammers are hard at work ahead of the Valentines Day holiday
Romance scammers are hard at work ahead of the Valentines Day holiday(KOLO-TV)
Published: Feb. 10, 2023 at 8:02 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 14, 2023 at 8:02 AM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) -All year long, but especially around Valentines Day, romance scammers are hard at work, looking to get you to part with your money.

According to the FBI, almost 25-thousand victims lost nearly a billion dollars in romance scams in 2021.

And scammers are now stealing significantly larger sums of money, and even leading victims into becoming criminals themselves.

At 81-years-old, Glenda thought she’d found the love of her life online. What she found was a criminal.

“He told me he was a U.S. citizen working in Nigeria. He asked me for money for his business and to help him leave Nigeria,” she said

The scammer sent her electronics to pawn, and instructed her to send him the money.

Glenda ended up being what the FBI refers to as a ‘money mule,’ someone who transfers and moves illegally acquired money on behalf of someone else.

“Bank employees, local police officers and federal agents told me that my love was a scam. They told me to stop or I could go to jail,” she said.

Despite never meeting or having spoken to this “love,” Glenda didn’t heed the warnings and ended up pleading guilty to two federal felonies.

Yvonne Costales Harlan found herself roped in to a romance scam by a person she connected with on Tinder.

“I didn’t think I was desperate, but looking back I acted as if I were,” said Costales Harlan.

They developed a relationship, while the scammer wove a tale about working in construction out of town, always finding a reason to cancel when they were supposed to meet in person.

“Then all of a sudden he says, ‘I love you,’” she said.

He sent flowers, and cards. They talked about their interests, deepening the connection.

“People who don’t have that experience it don’t realize that someone courting your virtually, it feels real. I know the rules, you’re supposed to meet people but you get hooked,” she said.

In North Ridgeville, an elderly woman recently sent more than one hundred thousand dollars to someone she thought was a romantic companion. According to the police report he requested money to be transfered from a money market account of hers to a checking account, and then she arranged for a wire transfer to him.

Sheryl Harris is with Cuyahoga County’s Scam Squad, which tracks and investigates scams like these.

“There was a huge jump in these in the last couple of years. They’re really high dollar scams. It takes more time and few more interactions with you but they can get much larger amounts of money,” she said.

She’s seeing an alarming trend emerging, involving next-level sums of money being stolen.

“Scammers will say, ‘Well, I’m very wealthy. I can help you invest so you can become wealthy too.’ It appears that these are growing,” she said.

Harris says these romance-turned-investment scams escalate rapidly.

“This is very toxic for people and it’s huge dollar losses,” said Harris

Yvonne’s scammer who also tried to get her to launder money, used classic moves out of a scammer’s play book, including the big emergency.

“There was an explosion at my work site, he sent me a picture of him in the hospital. I need you to help me. I need to send you to money to buy computers. All the computers were destroyed,” she said.

A reverse image search on Social Catfish helped Yvonne uncover the real identity of the man in the pictures. She suggests other people do the same.

“That was so helpful to me to find out that this man, whoever I’m speaking to, stole pictures. It was irrefutable evidence that I had made a mistake,” she said.

In the case of the North Ridgeville victim, it was a fraud alert from her bank to her daughter, who is also on the joint account, that eventually put a stop to the six-figure theft, freezing accounts before the funds got in the wrong hands. But too often by the time someone discovers what’s happening, the money is long gone.

But admitting the romance is a fraud and stopping the scammer is difficult for victims, and family or loved ones trying to sound the alarm.

“What victims tend to do is go back to the scammer to say, ‘Are you a scammer? Are you for real?’ My daughter searched for you, and she can’t find any record. She thinks you’re a scammer.’ What they want is for the scammer to reassure them and that’s exactly what the scammer does,” said Harris.

She says confronting someone with suspicions about a romance scam can come with collateral damage.

“Not only are people losing their money, very often they’re pushing away people who are real, and who love them. And they’re choosing the person who doesn’t exist and who is taking their money,” Harris said.

According to Harris, a more effective approach is to be non-judgmental, regardless of your doubts, and ask questions about the person.

The Scam Squad has staff members to help act as a go-between, to investigate, and help present the victim with evidence, markers of a scam and red flags that they’re in a dangerous situation.

“For example, ‘look, this picture’s been used for this name, and this name, and this name. Here’s a love letter. These phrases have been pulled from these things,’” she said.

These efforts are key because as hard as family members work to be convincing, scammers work even harder.

It’s always easier to prevent funds from going into the wrong hands than to try and get it back. So the FBI says if you suspect you’re involved in a romance scam, stop communicating immediately, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, and never send money to someone you haven’t met.