The Spanish moss swayed almost unperceptively one warm morning above a coastal Carolina cemetery, where a recently widowed grandmother kneeled weeping by her husband’s headstone. Unexpectedly, a younger man approached and started comforting the woman, eventually gaining enough trust to type his telephone number into the grandmother’s cell phone, and assuring her that he would help her if she ever needed anything. Lonely and upset, the widow placed a call to the stranger before she arrived home.
Disgustingly, the above scenario was actually reported not long ago by a distraught daughter to the NC Attorney General’s office. As the reader may have guessed by now, the lurker in the graveyard was not a good Samaritan–instead, he was a “sweetheart” scammer faking love and compassion for the lonely widow in order to steal her assets. Such scams may take months to develop, as the scammer slowly gains the victim’s trust, and gains greater and greater access to her financial assets.
The NC Department of Justice, Attorney General’s Office reports that they heard from 20 NC sweetheart scam victims in 2015, reporting $3.4M in total losses. Recently, one North Carolina woman sent more than $40,000 to a sweetheart scammer she met through Facebook who claimed to be working out of state when his bank account was supposedly frozen. Another victim lost nearly $100,000 to two sweetheart scammers she met through Match.com, both whom claimed to be Americans working on construction projects in the Middle East.
In addition to the particularly odious graveyard incident reported above, attorney Caroline Farmer, Deputy Director of the Victims and Citizens Section of the NC Attorney General’s office, reports that sweetheart scammers frequently troll newspaper obituary sections, looking for suitable prospective widow or widower victims. Such victims are frequently not contacted until about six months after the death of their spouse, because, as Ms. Farmer reports, most of the family who initially comforts the widow or widower has left, and loneliness starts to peak at the six month point.
Such scammers are good at their craft, and convince the victim that they really care about and love them. In-person scammers may even develop a sexual relationship with the victim, in order to become more deeply emotionally intertwined with them. When a senior is targeted, usually by a younger con artist, it may be much easier for other family members to see the problem than the victim, who may argue with those trying to help.
Even though a person of almost any age can fall victim to a sweetheart scam, seniors are viewed by these criminals as more vulnerable. Because many seniors now use computers, most sweetheart scams are now either wholly or partially conducted online. Since seniors now frequent online dating sites, the NC Attorney General’s office reports that scammers create fake identities on sites like SeniorPeopleMeet, OurTime, ChristianMingle, Match.com, eHarmony, and Facebook to target lonely people.
Because of the threat of encountering sweetheart scammers online or in person, seniors seeking romance should remember the following guidelines:
- Watch for foreign visitors. Beware of any person who claims to be working abroad, or claims to be a wealthy citizen working abroad, or a person who wants to visit the United States–such “foreigners” are frequently scammers.
- Leaving the dating site. Watch for anyone who asks to leave a dating site and communicate personally by email.
- Meeting in person. Be careful when meeting someone you met online in person. Meet only in a public place, and better yet, bring a friend or meet with a group of friends.
- Don’t share your personal information. Don’t share any personal or financial information, including your address, phone numbers, account numbers or passwords, with anyone you meet online (or any new individual you meet in person), even if their story sounds convincing. Be suspicious if you’re asked to make online purchases or forward packages to an address outside of the country.
- Get some help. Let your friends and trusted family members help you assess any new person who wants to become a part of your life.
- Watch out for superlatives. Watch out for anyone who is consistently positive or upbeat about a new romance with you, or who quickly speaks in glowing terms about his unconditional love for you.
If either you, or someone you know, may have been targeted by a sweetheart scam, please report the matter to local law enforcement, or to the NC Attorney General’s office scam report line at 1-877-5-NO-SCAM, or online at ncdoj.gov. Because many victims are so emotionally upset and embarrassed after falling for a sweetheart scam, these crimes are greatly underreported. By reporting such crimes, you can help keep others from becoming victims of these predators.