Scams. Cons. Confidence games. The list of clever ways developed to cheat people throughout the ages is long. Our reaction, legally speaking, is strong, despite our love for movies about con artists, and well it should be. Of all the ways to steal from someone, tricking them by feeding them a lie is, at least for many Americans, likely one of the most deplorable. Somehow, despite how widespread confidence schemes are, however, many of us think they can’t happen to us or a loved one. Until fairly recently, I, too, thought myself and mine to be smart enough to avoid the trap. This, then, is a cautionary tale.
This is a Tale of Two Cons.
Con Number 1: The Rom Con
The Romance Scam is so diabolical and so popular that there is an entire website (and business model) devoted to it. In fact, in 2018, over $143 million dollars was lost to romance scammers, with the average being $2,600 per victim. See the FTC’s site.
This particular scam visited my family recently, and we’re still feeling the effects. Thankfully, we think we caught it in time, but now we’re more vigilant. Here’s the story:
One fine day, our Mark (the victim of a confidence scheme, not a real name) was happily playing Scrabble on his phone. Mark doesn’t have a lot to do these days, given his age and COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. So, Mark wiles away the days and nights fooling around with cell-phone word games and other distractions of the modern age. A nifty feature of the Scrabble app is that you can send your opponent messages. (You can disable this feature; however, it is on by default.) This fine summer day, Mark received a message.
It started off innocently enough: “Hello. How are You.”
Over the next few hours and days, the chat progressed into some mild and playful taunting about the game. Then, some discussion about life and family. The interlocutor’s name was Laura.* Laura was working on an oil rig in the Caspian Sea. (Believe it or not: women do work on oil rigs.) She was divorced, in her 40s. She had a daughter, Marsha (a lawyer in New York), and a beautiful granddaughter, Brett.
Before long, Mark found himself flirting with Laura, and she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she flirted back. As the conversation grew more intense, Laura suggested they switch to Google Hangouts so they could not only chat, but exchange photos and even call each other. Mark was stunned and excited by how into him Laura seemed to be. He enjoyed the photos of the oil rig.
Mark loved children – had grandchildren of his own – and laughed when he saw photos of Brett. He asked if she was named after Lady Brett Ashley (affirmative).
Together, Mark and Laura marveled about finding love on the internet – at their age! – and started making plans for visits when Laura retired from the rig (in just a few months). At night, they shared intimate moments. Laura started to call more and more, using text-messaging less and less. Although she had a strange accent, Mark didn’t notice or didn’t care. Laura was born in Australia, her mother of Indonesian stock, her father an Englishman by birth.
Mark enjoyed the thrill of his secret love. At one point, Laura asked him if he knew anything about bitcoin. He confessed he didn’t, being not really up to day with all this “technological stuff.” He asked his relative, a lawyer. Jeff explained the basics of bitcoin and blockchain technology, which frankly blew Mark away. He still didn’t really get it, he admitted.
A few days later, Laura asked Mark for a favor. “Anything for you, my love.”
Laura said that she wanted to invest in some bitcoin to secure her future with Mark. She wanted Mark to go in with her on some software. All she needed was some cash. Mark agreed, and she got Mark set up with a bitcoin wallet and an app to transfer cash from his bank account. Mark repeated his concerns about not really understanding virtual currency “and all that jazz,” but he trusted Laura. They were going to spend the rest of their lives together, after all.
Choose your own adventure
Here, the story can go one of two ways. For our Mark, family wised up and a timely intervention prevented him from sending the cash. Mark was embarrassed and angry. We hope he’ll be more careful in the long-run, and we have helped him delete the apps and cut off contact. For now, at least.
But, in many cases, no-one will have known about Mark’s secret paramour. That version of Mark is a little poorer and a lot sadder. Not only was he scammed (he doesn’t really know who or how his bank account was drained), but he also was ghosted by the love of his life. He’s heartbroken and has fallen into a depression that, if not addressed, may begin to affect his physical health.
What to do
If you believe a loved one is or may become the victim of a romance scam, take action! Be aware, this will not be easy. The victim has been drawn in and, whether you believe it possible or not, really has fallen in love. You will be rocking their world. They may not believe you – even after the truth is made excruciatingly clear. But, in the end, you will sparing them greater loss. Here are some thoughts on what you should do next:
- Educate yourself and share the information with others. The FTC is a good place to start. Check out their neat infographic.
- Report, report, report.
- Most importantly, take care of your loved one. Show support. Remember, they aren’t stupid, though they probably already feel that way. Commiserate with them. Remind them that they are loved and you want to keep them safe.
Now you know.
* I changed both names, as well as some details, to protect the innocent Mark, not Laura, who is far from innocent. Although I made some changes, Mark and Laura are very much real people, and this is very much a real story. Enjoy cons at the movies, not in real life!