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Another Story About Romance Fraud

Close-up Of Businesswoman Paying With Credit Card On Mobile Phone

Loretta, a 79-year-old widowed woman, was surprised and delighted when she received a Facebook message from a man who commented on her post. He told Loretta he shared her opinions and said he had not come across anyone before who expressed her beliefs so intelligently and passionately. He didn’t mean to bother her, but would she mind adding him to her “friend” list? Although Loretta did not know this man, after looking at his Facebook profile she was intrigued and sent him a friend request.

As the two began to exchange messages she was amazed to find out how much they had in common. They had shared tastes in music, politics, and a love for dogs. David told her he’d lost his wife to cancer two years ago and she was touched by how close he seemed to be to his family. Loretta was also close to her adult children and appreciated that David was so involved in his own children and grandchildren’s lives. His profile listed his age as 69 and she found him quite handsome.

Loretta has many friends and was very involved socially with both her community and her church before the COVID pandemic arrived. Although she told me she did not feel “lonely” at the point she met David, she admitted the pandemic restrictions made her feel isolated from her usual life. She says since her husband had passed away five years prior, she misses being in an intimate relationship. None of the gentlemen she had met in her social circles captured her attention. But David—he was different.

Loretta and David began messaging each other multiple times throughout the day, every day. If she didn’t answer a message right away, he’d message to ask if she was okay. She felt she was getting to know him so well; he would share his innermost thoughts with her about life and was astounded to meet a man who shared things so openly. He sent her love notes and flowers. She had fallen in love with David, and he asked her to marry him. Having never met in person, and having never communicated via phone or live video, Loretta still believed David was the man she wanted to spend her life with, and she looked forward to marrying him.

Four months into their online relationship, David divulged that like his wife, his grandson had been diagnosed with cancer. David told Loretta he had to postpone getting married until he knew his grandson was getting the help he needed. He said he was in the hospital battling the illness, and the doctors had exhausted all treatment options except for one promising experimental treatment they could try – but it was not covered by insurance. David said the family was doing their best to raise the money but were falling short, and time was critical. Would Loretta be able to help? This tugged at Loretta’s heart; she knew how important family was to him, and she could not imagine her own grandson going through this terrible experience. She loved David and wanted to help, and he assured her he and the family would pay her back.

Over the course of several months Loretta wired $20,000 to David for medical expenses for his grandson. Each time was in response to a request for a new issue: another treatment session, a specialist consultation, special medication. Finally, David sadly told her that to continue the treatment his grandson would now need to receive even more specialized care in Switzerland. He hesitated to ask because she had been so generous already, but could she contribute to his travel expenses? Having sent all her savings to David for his grandson’s care, Loretta took out a home equity line of credit on her home and sent him more money.

screenshot of Kathi Church participating in a presentation

Kathi Church participated in a presentation on coordinated response to abuse, neglect, and exploitation in the Seattle City Council Chamber in 2018. Click on the image to watch the videorecording.

As David continued to postpone an in-person meeting for one reason or another, Loretta was disappointed but felt he always had a valid reason for not being able to fly out to meet her. It did not change the feelings she had for him. It was not until after Loretta began struggling to pay her housing costs and utility bills that she recognized she might be the victim of romance fraud. Now panicking about her financial predicament, she frequently expressed concerns to “David” asking when she would be repaid. David made a string of promises about the money he would be sending her, but each time the expected day came he had an excuse why the funds would be delayed. Loretta would believe him and kept hope alive that he would come meet her and they would marry. Then, David disappeared. His account no longer visible on Facebook.

Loretta and her family reported the fraud to her local police department. It was a concerned officer who contacted the King County Elder Abuse Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) to ask what help or support might be available to her. This in turn led to a referral to our ADS Elder Abuse Program.

Looking back at her experience Loretta had only “met” David through words and photos he chose to send her. She never spoke over the phone with him, never video-called, never met in person. He knew what to say and how to keep her interest. In fact, many times the imposter on the other end of the online chat is across the globe in another country and is one of a team of individuals working together as they pretend to be one’s love interest. David’s story was so convincing that it took months for Loretta to believe she was being deceived, even when her family and friends begged her to end the relationship. It was hard for her to come to grips with the fact the man she loved was a criminal and that she was a victim of cybercrime. She lost her life savings and may lose her home. A frustrating but common problem in romance/imposter fraud is that because the criminals typically operate from outside the country it is very difficult, sometimes impossible, for law enforcement to track the criminals and bring them to justice.

Loretta is a smart, educated woman. It is dangerous for any of us to think “I would never fall for that.” Imposter fraud criminals are adept at creating a persona that is designed to convince their victims of their false identity.  A story that works to convince Loretta will be different than one used on you, me, or any potential victim.

As a case manager with Aging and Disability Services’ Elder Abuse Program I provided Loretta support and connected her to resources while she dealt with the fallout of this crime. Some of the services I provided included accompanying her to interviews with police, assisting her in filing reports with the Federal Trade Commission and the Internet Crime Complaint Center, and providing fraud education. I was there to listen and support her through the pain and betrayal she experienced as she dealt with the loss of what she believed to be a real relationship.

Fortunately, Loretta has supportive friends and family as well. Through a referral from me she is also now receiving support through a romance fraud support group sponsored by Cybercrime Support Network, a national organization that helps those affected by cybercrime. 

In the end, Loretta said her financial losses were hard but the loss of what she thought was a real relationship, and what she thought her future would be, has been even harder.

Contributor Kathi Church has been a case manager with Aging & Disability Services for nearly 20 years. She has spent her last 10 years working under the Elder Abuse Program. She provides case management services to older adults who have experienced abuse, neglect, and exploitation. She is also a member of the King County Elder Abuse Multidisciplinary Team.

How to Report Suspected Elder Abuse

WEAAD bannerIf you suspect that a crime against a vulnerable adult is occurring or has occurred, you should do two things:

  1. Report the crime to the police by calling 911; AND
  2. Report the abuse to the Washington State Department of Health and Human Services:
Posted in Elder Abuse