By Shawna Reeves, MSW, Director of Elder Abuse Prevention at the Institute on Aging in San Francisco and Cherie Bourlard, Deputy District Attorney with the County of Santa Clara
Q: Can you tell us about an online romance scam case you have handled? What was the outcome?
A: Most cases I have worked with in the investigations stage do not make it to a criminal filing because usually the imposter online scammer is someone from overseas, such as Costa Rica, Nigeria or Jamaica. And the scammer must be identified. Local authorities are not the proper agency to investigate. It is extremely difficult to truly identify the international scammer, and even if so, next to impossible to effectuate an out-of-country arrest. In my experience, the high threshold dollar amount to get the federal authorities interested is usually the death knell to a proper investigation. Nevertheless, we have had some success in handling cases, even if arrest and convictions are not the ultimate goal.
In one case I handled, a younger (66), elderly lady used the Christian Mingle online dating site. She fell in love with her scammer who claimed to be a U.K. citizen working on a Scottish oil rig. After wooing her with phone calls, text messages, and sending her flowers, (they never met in person) he asked the victim to invest or loan him money to operate his business. In fact, the suspect had created a fake picture of himself and a fake business website, even listing the victim now as a company official. The suitor’s Skype account and email addresses were later traced to Nigeria. The victim had already wired him $500,000. In the last transaction the victim wired $200,000 to a Turkish bank account at the suspect’s instructions. Upon discovering she had been defrauded, she contacted my office. I recall immediately leaving a voice mail and sending an email to the Turkish bank asking them to freeze the account. To my surprise, they did! The next day when an associate of the suspect attempted to withdraw the funds in Turkey, after the bank alerted the Turkish National Police, they arrested and jailed the associate, a Nigerian national with a false passport, who was attempting to withdraw the money. The victim’s $200,000 was eventually restored to her account and the associate faced fraud and other charges in Turkey. Despite a lengthy investigation we were not able to catch the actual romance scammer. Nevertheless, the victim still lost her home to foreclosure since she had tapped into her home equity to send money to the scammer.
Q: How do online romance scams differ than other types of scams targeting older adults? How are they similar?
A: Online romance scams differ from other types of scams, because usually the Elder is a little bit younger, able to navigate the internet somewhat, and thus still maintain and control their own finances. With the Online Romance scam, generally, it is the victim who actively goes out searching for love or companionship, unlike, for instance, the “Hello Gramma,” IRS, or Advanced Fee/Lottery scams, where the victim is usually passive until the scammer has somehow reached out to them by way of mail, email, telephone. Once someone has been punched in the gut with the “love-drug” it is hard to convince them this scammer is phony. Whereas the Advanced Feel/Lottery scam may play upon greed, the Online Romance scam does not. It entails a love-struck victim wanting to help the imposter. The similarity is that the callers are all imposters, and in some cases, could involve the same scammers across the board.
Q: Have you seen an increase in the number of online romance scams reported to your office?
A: I have been prosecuting Elder Fraud since 2007. Statistics are very difficult to track because the way these crimes are reported, both formally and informally, to a wide array of different agencies. I would think that this crime is on the rise due to our increasing elder community, however in my personal experience, I would say that reportings, to my office, are down. I would like to I credit this with continued outreach and education. Prevention and intervention is key in addressing the problem with Online Dating scams. It may also simply be that elders are becoming more internet-savy.
Q: What would you like older adults and their loved ones to know about online romance scams?
A: For the elders who seek a relationship, and insist on using online forums, pay the higher amount for an account and use only those sites that verify the user’s identity. Never go offline with someone you have never met, and certainly NEVER send money, under ANY circumstances to someone you have never met in person. No matter how much corroboration the romancer has sent you. Just don’t do it.
Children/friends, please be aware of what your folks/elderly friends are doing. Talk to them about it. See if you can help monitor their finances. Show them internet articles about online dating scams. Google “catphishing” which is another term for this scam. If you cannot convince them otherwise, explore the options of protecting their assets through family planning, with Power of Attorneys, Living Trusts, or even financial conservatorship.
Q: In your opinion, what are the best ways older adults can protect themselves against online romance scammers?
A: Same as stated above. If you know of a loved-one who has fallen prey, report it immediately! To Adult Protective Services AND local law enforcement AND the District Attorney’s Office Elder Abuse Unit, the FBI and DOJ. Also, sometimes within a day or two, it is not too late to request your bank to have your wired money reversed. Otherwise, in most cases, your money is gone, and law enforcement cannot recover it.
Shawna Reeves, MSW, is director of elder abuse prevention at the Institute on Aging in San Francisco. Previously, she was director of financial education and advocacy at Council on Aging Silicon Valley. Shawna has published numerous articles on elder financial abuse and has presented throughout the country on consumer issues and innovative ways to prevent elder financial abuse. Shawna received her MSW from Smith College School for Social Work.
Cherie Bourlard is a Deputy District Attorney with the County of Santa Clara. She has been a prosecutor for over 31 years. She has prosecuted cases including Narcotics, Domestic Violence, Stalking, Workplace Violence, Rape, Auto Theft and Career Criminals. For the past 11 years she has been assigned to prosecute Financial Abuse committed against Elders and Dependent Adults. While assigned to the D.A.’s Office Elder Fraud Unit she has been successful in recovering over 10 million dollars in assets for her victims of financial abuse.
She is a recipient of the Certificate of Appreciation Award from the Victim Support Network of Santa Clara County and of the Santa Clara County Employee Excellence Award. Together as a member of the County’s Financial Abuse Specialist Time (F.A.S.T.) she was presented an Outstanding Service Award from Crime-Stoppers. Also, she holds in high esteem two Challenge Coins she received from her boss, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, following a successful prosecution and full recovery of money from of a banker who stole over 1 million dollars from a very elderly client, and in swaying a bank to reimburse an elderly victim for stolen checks, covering a loss of over $200,000.
On a personal level, she loves traveling to new destinations.