How I Ended Up Giving $1 Million to a Scammer

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Gaetano DiNardi

Head of Content at Aura

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    Editor's Note: This article is a guest contribution by Debby Montgomery Johnson.

    More than fifty percent of the United States population consists of single adults* and with so many dating websites and apps out there, it’s normal to meet romantic partners online.

    We use social media to stay in touch, make new connections, and stay informed. Digital apps open our world, and for many, it’s exciting to meet new people — until it isn’t.

    How I Became a Victim

    My husband of almost twenty-six years died suddenly, and after a period of grief, my friends encouraged me to start dating again. Online dating seemed safe, and after crafting a profile that felt fitting for a professional businesswoman and single mom of four grown kids, the matches came in quickly. 

    The pictures of men in tank tops with women hanging on their arms and the “About Me” sections full of typos or otherwise salty language had me questioning what I was doing. However, one match stood out — an international businessman from London, a widower and father, an athlete and well-educated. Perfect match.

    Within days, we moved off the dating site and over to Yahoo Chat. We spent hours chatting about our businesses, our families, our marriages, and the deaths of our spouses.

    Trust was built as we talked about our pasts and shared our present and future expectations. Our relationship progressed quickly, and I felt he had become my future.

    Why I Ignored the Red Flags

    In anticipation of him completing his work in the Far East and moving to the States, where we planned to build a life together, I opened a local bank account so we could transfer funds. His personal attorney needed me to set up a Power of Attorney for international transfers. Then I received an urgent request to transfer money via Western Union to pay for it. 

    Considering my background in banking, I felt especially uneasy about this transfer, and as a former paralegal, I questioned the cost of the legal documents. His attorney told me that filing international legal documents was more expensive than in the United States.

    My partner assured me that he would pay me back in full but that we needed to make the transfer before his international job ended.

    Over the next 18 months, his “sister” and I wired more than $1 million to cover courier costs, customs fees and tariffs, some emergency medical expenses (both personal and family), and other business-related fees. Again, each time my partner asked for help, he assured me that the money would be paid back in full. 

    Why would I help so much? I believed in him, and I trusted him. He was becoming family to me, and I would do anything for family. Like most victims of relationship fraud, I sold investments and old jewelry and liquidated retirement accounts. I did not have $1 million in the bank, but I found it. This time, I let my heart rule my head.  

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    It's Not the Victim’s Fault

    We need to dispel the notion that victims of relationship scams are dumb, gullible, or needy, along with any of the other harmful adjectives thrown at victims. Most scam victims I work with at the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams are highly educated, well-trained individuals. 

    Gullibility implies a person is easily duped or cheated; however, victims are typically trusting and lack information to avoid deception. Negative victim stereotypes imply blame. This is why education is essential in destigmatizing victim experiences and helping people identify and avoid scams.

    How to Recognize a Romance Scam

    The dangers of online dating are both financial and emotional.

    Scammers employ various grooming techniques to gain victims’ trust and prepare them for the comprehensive manipulation they use to maintain control. They typically form deep connections with victims by mimicking their life circumstances. 

    My scammer made a dating profile targeting women who were parents and widows, like myself, to establish commonality and take advantage of anticipated vulnerability from the beginning. They profess their feelings quickly and create a sense of urgency around preparing for future plans together. 

    Scammers listen and actively romance victims by sending poems, songs, flowers, or gifts. They encourage victims to take space or cut ties with family and friends who express concern or suspicions, so no one interferes with the victim's compliance. Given their fears, my kids urged me not to send money, but as the adult in the situation, I chose to ignore them.

    Scammers often employ other scammers to act as family members, attorneys, or business associates. There isn’t a “he” or “she” in a relationship scam — it is typically “them,” and the FBI considers them members of organized crime.

    How to Avoid Being Scammed Online

    In 2021, more than a third of people who lost money to an online romance scam said it started on Facebook or Instagram.

    Protect your personal information on social media sites. Do not accept friend requests from people you don’t know — even if their profile seems legitimate (scammers can use hacked Instagram accounts to avoid suspicion). If anyone asks for money, don’t send it. Take a pause when things are moving too quickly, and get a dating buddy who can help identify red flags you may be overlooking. 

    If something makes you uneasy, listen to your intuition and take a step back to better assess the situation. With internet culture, we’re naturally more vulnerable to scams. But when armed with proper education, we can take the necessary precautions to protect ourselves and embrace all the digital world has to offer.

    Sources:
    • Rao, Mythili. “Singles Nation: Why Americans Are Turning Away from Marriage: The Takeaway.” WNYC Studios, September 11, 2014, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/more-half-americans-are-single 
    • Fletcher, Emma. “Reports of romance scams hit record highs in 2021.” Federal Trade Commission Data Spotlight (blog), February 10, 2022, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/data-visualizations/data-spotlight/2022/02/reports-romance-scams-hit-record-highs-2021#_ednref4

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    1. Financial identity theft and fraud
    2. Medical identity theft
    3. Child identity theft
    4. Elder fraud and estate identity theft
    5. “Friendly” or familial identity theft
    6. Employment identity theft
    7. Criminal identity theft
    8. Tax identity theft
    9. Unemployment and government benefits identity theft
    10. Synthetic identity theft
    11. Identity cloning
    12. Account takeovers (social media, email, etc.)
    13. Social Security number identity theft
    14. Biometric ID theft
    15. Crypto account takeovers