DES MOINES, Iowa – (From the Attorney General of Iowa’s office) Jane met Rob on a Christian dating website in the spring of 2021. His faith in God and his ability to recite passages from the Bible immediately put the retiree at ease, marking the start of months-long online relationship that would ultimately cost Jane nearly $100,000.
Sweetheart scam, romance scam or online dating scam: known by many names, the con often begins the same way: an unsuspecting victim receives a message through a dating site or social media platform from a new suitor. Like Jane, the victim opens his or her heart, becoming emotionally attached to someone who appears to be a promising soul mate. Jane’s name has been changed to protect her identity, but she is a real Iowan who fell for a romance scam.
As the relationship progresses, the would-be cyber sweetheart comes up with excuses as to why he or she can’t meet face-to-face; limiting contact to email, texts, or phone calls. Eventually, the potential suitor brings up a personal emergency or tragedy and convinces the victim to send a large amount of money. The fairy-tale relationship comes to a heartbreaking and hurtful ending when the victim eventually learns the whole thing was a scam.
“This scam would not have worked on someone else because of my mindset and things he told me,” Jane recalls. “It made sense to me. He was alone, and I was alone. It didn’t seem strange to me that he didn’t know anyone.”
Over time, Jane’s relationship with Rob grew. He used the information he learned about Jane to further perpetuate a connection, often referring to God, the Bible and sermons to appeal to her emotions. He even told her he was familiar with the area where she lived, had visited a nearby park and attended church with a friend in the area.
The emails quickly turned to phone calls and a flower delivery on Jane’s birthday, just a few weeks after they first started talking.
“He gained my confidence,” she said. “He kept in contact every two to three days whether by email or phone.”
One day, Rob told Jane that his only living relative, an uncle, needed better care and was being sent to a hospital at Fort Hood and he would be traveling with him. While there, Rob, who claimed he previously worked for the FBI but was now an independent contractor, was asked to take on a contract in Syria.
“He left, but kept in touch when he got there,” Jane said. Then, as many of these cons go, a request was made. “He asked me to go into his bank account. He said that he was locked out and needed me to transfer $50,000 to the doctor who was caring for his uncle.”
Jane declined to do the transfer, telling Rob she was uncomfortable with the idea. However, eventually, she relented and accessed the account. Later, Rob asked her to go in again for another transfer for an emergency surgery for his uncle. This time it was blocked by the bank. At that point, Rob asked her to send him the money from her account.
When Jane expressed hesitation and told Rob she couldn’t send him money, his correspondence became more volatile. After Jane told Rob her bank refused to let her make a transfer because they suspected fraud, he responded:
“If you’re truly a believer of God and you let a man die when you could’ve helped then that’s totally ungodly. … Just know that everything falls back on you because the lady that is telling you all this isn’t real, definitely had a husband and is in a successful relationship but you’re ruining yours over things that doesn’t even make sense.”
While the bank refused the transfer, telling Jane it was a likely a scam, she had money saved at home that she sent to Rob.
In the following months, Rob was struck by tragedy after tragedy: an ambush while leading a group rescue mission in Israel, a stabbing at a detention center after he was detained at the airport, and more.
Following each situation, Rob asked Jane for more money. After the ambush, she sent him $16,000 to fly back to the United States. Another several thousand were requested to send his valuables – watches and jewelry – home so he could cross the border back into Syria. And finally, while in the hospital after being stabbed in the detention center, he asked for money to repay a friend who helped him get care.
“He has completely earned my trust through all these months,” she said. “It’s crazy when I think about it. I finally woke up and went to the police to report this. Of course, it’s an unbelievable story. But he’s still calling me from the hospital.”
Jane still took Rob’s calls. He claimed he would pay her back, and he did, depositing $15,000 to pay her credit card bills. But just a week later the payment was stopped.
When Rob claimed to be back at Fort Hood in Texas to recover from his wounds, Jane found that he tried to make purchases on her credit cards. When she questioned him, he became angry and lashed out at her over email.
At the urging of a detective, Jane stopped corresponding with Rob. Jane has since filed fraud reports with her local police department, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Iowa Attorney General’s office.
While she continues to work to get her money back, she’s returned to the workforce and looks for ways to prevent others from becoming a victim.
“They have to get into your head,” she said. “You have to know where you are. I had no one, COVID was here, I had decided that I wasn’t going to be single, I was going to step out and date. You need to know yourself, know where you are in your life. And don’t be sending money to these people.”
Romance Scams On The Rise
Jane’s story isn’t an outlier; it’s fairly common both in Iowa and the United States. According to FTC, romance scam reached a record $547 million in losses in 2021, up about 80 percent from 2020.
Of those involved in romance scams, reports from victims ages 18 to 29 increased more than tenfold from 2017 to 2021. Victims ages 70 and older reported the highest individual median losses at $9,000, compared to $750 for the 18 to 29 age group.
Each year, scammers put a new twist on their cons, 2021 was no different. The FTC reports an increase in romance scammers luring consumers into phony cryptocurrency investment schemes. Consumers who paid romance scammers with cryptocurrency reported losing $139 million in total in 2021, more than any other payment amount. The median loss for consumers who reported paying a romance scammer with cryptocurrency was nearly $10,000.
Despite the increase, consumers continued to most often report sending money to romance scammers by using gift cards, with about a quarter of 2021 reports citing gift cards as a payment method.
In recent months, consumer advocates have heard stories of emerging romance scams that target young people, claiming to have investment opportunities available, as well as con artists who obtain the IDs of military generals, making contacts with older Americans.
Free Panel on Romance Scam
While we learn of these emerging scams, we’re left with many questions: How are these crimes occurring? Who are the perpetrators and the victims? What can law enforcement and online businesses do to stop these crimes and protect victims?
To address these questions, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, as president of the National Association of Attorneys General, will host a public panel, “Romance Scams: Broken Hearts and Empty Pockets” from 2 to 3:30 p.m. CT (3 to 4:30 p.m. ET) on Monday, February 14, to address these matters.
The panel will feature experts from federal agencies, the online dating industry, and a senior advocacy group who will discuss romance scams and share information about their efforts to address the cons.
Panel experts include:
- Buddy Loomis, Senior Director, LE Ops & Investigations, Match Group
- Amy Nofziger, Director of Victim Support, Fraud Watch Network, AARP
- Matthew J. Reynolds, Supervisory Special Agent, Economic Crimes Unit, FBI
- Dan Rutherford, Associate Director, Office of Customer Education and Outreach, U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission
- Andrew Cederdahl, Assistant Attorney General, Iowa Attorney General’s Office, moderator
This webinar is free and open to public. Register here.
In the meantime, consumers can do many things to protect themselves while looking for love online:
- Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person – even if they send you money first.
- Talk to someone you trust about this new love interest. It can be easy to miss things that don’t add up. _Pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
- Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers.
- Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures. If they’re associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.
- Learn more at ftc.gov/romancescams.
If you believe you are involved in a romance scam, or if you know someone who may be, contact the Iowa Attorney General’s Office immediately. To file a complaint, go here or call 515-281-5926 (in the Des Moines area) or 888-777-4590 (outside the metro area).