Romance scams Law enforcement troubles

Jeanne Aikens was a widow in her late 60s when she found a new love. Or so she thought.

Aikens had nursed her husband through Parkinson’s disease until his death a few years earlier, and she was ready to start dating again. Aikens, chief nursing officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, met a man called “Logan” through a dating site in 2018 and discovered they had a common interest in running for fitness. Or so she thought.

Within months, they became friends online, through text messages and phone calls. “Logan” professed his love for her, and they planned to meet in Boston, not far from her home in New Hampshire. But first, he needed the money.

Telling the story of being delayed in Britain on a work trip and needing money, he persuaded Aikens to wire him money multiple times, eventually totaling over $200,000. . His family tried to warn him, his banker questioned the withdrawals, a colleague was appalled, but Aikens backed his love.

“I wasn’t worried about the funds because he always said he would pay it back. He always agreed,” she said in a phone interview from her new home in Arizona. “He asked me to send him a spreadsheet with an accounting of all the funds. What should I be worried about? I sent him a spreadsheet.

But eventually the plot unraveled, leaving Aikens embarrassed, ashamed, and poorer. She hopes that by telling her story, she can help others avoid similar circumstances.

She has lots of company. The FBI reported that romance scammers ripped off about $1 billion from would-be American lovers in 2021, up from $600 million the previous year. It was the third highest amount of scam losses reported by the FBI in 2021, behind email account scams totaling $2.4 billion and investment frauds totaling $1.5 billion.

The FBI has reported that scammers use the illusion of a romantic relationship to get inside their victims’ heads and gain their trust before asking for money. Sometimes it happens within a few months, other times it takes longer, but the bottom line is that these fake lovers are willing to invest the time and energy to heal their marks, because often the payoff is worth it. the penalty. State attorneys general say they are also seeing an increase in romance scams, in part due to the isolation caused at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Thieves have discovered a new scam: synthetic spoofing

Aikens said his con artist was finally exposed when the police chief of his small town of Fremont, New Hampshire, sent by his family, knocked on his door with a photo of “Logan”, who turned out to have been ripped from someone else’s Facebook page. . Even then, while she stopped sending money, she refused to cut off all contact with him. She hoped to catch him and contacted the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office. “Logan” was never found.

Attorneys general say they have had little success recovering money or criminally charging romance scammers because they are often overseas and outside their jurisdiction. The FBI had some success, although little compared to the sums stolen.

New Hampshire Assistant Attorney General Bryan Townsend said in a telephone interview that the scams have increased with the isolation of the pandemic, but it is difficult to prosecute them at the state level.

“One of the big things we face is the difficulty of prosecuting the perpetrators of these scams because often they are overseas,” he said. Often, cases are referred to the FBI, which can sometimes criminally charge the perpetrators. In September, the US Department of Justice announced financial crime charges against 11 people in a romance fraud scheme linked to an international organized crime syndicate originating from Nigeria. The cases are pending.

What attorneys general in New Hampshire and elsewhere can do is sound the alarm, dispel myths, and help victims cope with disappointment and shame, in part by letting them know that ‘they are not alone or stupid.

“There is a misconception that these are people who suffer from dementia; that’s not true,” Townsend said. “There is a misconception that they are all old; they really aren’t. We’ve seen romance scams for people much younger than that. What the victims have in common is that they are lonely, often visit dating sites and have access to a good amount of money, he said.

Sunny Mulligan Shea, a victim witness advocate for the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, works with victims like Aikens and others both to help them through the romance scam crisis and to educate the public.

“We’ve had people who think they got married online,” she said in a phone interview. “They have fake marriage papers. It’s very elaborate. I go to their house and tell them how to get to safety. And she hates telling them that their love and money is now gone.

“There is deep sadness because I broke their hearts as well as their bank account,” she said.

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Turns out, state lawmakers also hate auto-renewing contracts.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, a Democrat, said he has noticed an increase in romance scams in his state involving both male and female victims. “It’s obvious how easy it is for a scammer to troll social media, obituaries – you can find out who recently lost a spouse, who’s single, who’s looking for love.”

Abusers treat their victims, he said, and then fall for the trap asking for money. Tong has no criminal jurisdiction over con artists in any other state or country, but he, like other attorneys general, works with the FBI. He said the scale of the crimes is staggering.

“A Connecticut woman was corresponding with someone in Turkey; she lost $100,000,” he said in a phone interview. “A guy corresponding with someone in Dubai was asked for $6,000. He didn’t, but he came close.

Tong and Townsend are among a host of attorneys general who have issued press releases and public statements warning people of scams, trying to prevent them before they start.

“A lot of it never gets reported because it’s very embarrassing for people,” Tong said. “If you’re an older American, you don’t want to tell your kids you got ripped off looking for love.”

Aikens’ relationship with his daughter fell apart due to the romance scam, and they did not reconcile, she said.

In New York, the state Assembly this month passed a bill that would require financial institutions to warn consumers of potential scams, such as romance fraud, whenever they see an electronic money transfer. funds set up from a consumer’s account to another person.

State Rep. Al Stirpe, a Democrat who introduced the bill, said the warnings about e-transfers aren’t just aimed at romance fraud, although that is one aspect of the bill. Another popular scam the bill attempts to tackle is targeting grandparents. In these cases, the senior gets a call alleging that their grandchild has been arrested and needs bail. The grandparent is responsible for sending the funds electronically.

Stirpe said the intention of his bill is to “ensure that when people make wire transfers there is a disclaimer to make sure you know who you are sending money to.” He said the bill would require a “clear and concise” warning before an electronic transfer would be permitted. This warning would instruct the account holder to verify the recipient of the funds.

A somewhat similar bill passed the state Senate, but no progress was made in reconciling the two, he said.

Aikens still has emotional bruises from his dealings with the con artist, but, in terms of love, his life is looking up. She married a man from nearby New Hampshire a few months ago, and they retired to Arizona together.

“He’s sitting next to me,” she said in a phone interview with Stateline.