GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Kent County woman is out about $30,000 after meeting a man on Facebook and falling for an all-too-common “romance scam.”
She shared her story ahead of Valentine’s Day in hopes that her warning prevents others from falling victim.
“I’ve lost trust. And I don’t think I’ll ever be the same person again,” the woman, who asked that her identity be concealed, told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday.
The victim, who is in her 60s, lost her husband of 40-plus years just a few years ago and said loneliness drew her into the scam.
“I was so lonely. My purpose in life was gone: taking care of my husband. And this person comes along and he needed me,” she said.
ASKING FOR MORE AND MORE MONEY
It started last August on Facebook, when she received a random friend request from someone she described was a nice-looking man with a dog.
“I ended up pushing the confirm. And that’s what started ‘Hello,'” she recalled.
The man claimed to be from Alabama but said he was working overseas. They started messaging on Facebook and eventually took their conversations to a private online chat service.
The woman said she was swept off her feet by the smooth talker.
“‘You’re a wonderful person, you’re beautiful, you’re a Christian,'” she recalled the scammer writing. “I felt like somebody cared about me and the loneliness was going away.”
After a little while, he started asking for money. At first, it was a $100 iTunes gift card to cover the cost of a lost phone.
The scammer said he was a millionaire and provided bank statements that she thought were true, saying his accounts were frozen because he was overseas.
But the amounts he asked for started getting bigger. The victim was soon wiring thousands of dollars through Western Union to cover what the scammer claimed were work and medical emergencies.
The woman spoke with the scammer over the phone only a few times after she brought concerns about him using a fake profile picture, which he explained away.
At one point, he sent flowers and a ring to sweeten her up and maintained that he would pay her back twofold.
Finally, in November, he said he had bought a plane ticket to Grand Rapids to meet her.
“I sat at the airport for three hours,” she recalled. “You’re all dressed up and you’re excited and you’re thinking you’re going to meet the love of your life.”
The man never showed.
Over the course of several months, the victim said she lost about $30,000, even getting cash advances to do so.
VICTIMS BLINDED BY EMOTION
On Tuesday, the Better Business Bureau of Western Michigan held a press conference to warn of similar romance scams. In the U.S. over the past three years alone, victims in these types of scams have reported nearly $1 billion in losses.
As in the case of the West Michigan, the scams start on dating or social media sites and eventually move to texts, phone calls or chat sites. The fraudsters use fake photos and names, often pretending to be part of the U.S. military. The reality is most of the suspects are actually based in Nigeria.
“In a period of a month, the victim has fallen in love and is putty in hands of the fraudster and they’re willing to do anything this person asks them to do,” Phil Catlett, president and CEO of the BBB of Western Michigan, said.
“From the outset, you’re like, ‘How can somebody be that stupid?’ Well, unfortunately people are, because they’re preyed on their emotions and it makes you stupid,” Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker added.
>>PDF: BBB on online romance scams
Experts recommend that victims contact the BBB, local police, the FBI and the company who wired the money — typically Western Union — to report the scam. But experts warn that tracing who’s responsible is very difficult and local law enforcement don’t have jurisdiction over the cases.
That’s what happened to the victim in the Kent County case. The woman called police, but they said there wasn’t anything they could do. She’s now working to contact the BBB and Western Union to see what can be done.
The scammer is still trying to contact her, even asking that she sell her house and send him money, but she said she stopped communicating with him about a month ago.
As with many victims, she admits she’s still trying to come to grips with the fact that none of the romance was real.
**Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said the interview and press conference were Monday. They were actually Tuesday. We regret the error, which has been corrected.