EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Somewhere in America, an elderly widower has pinned his hopes for Valentine Day’s romance on a young woman who sends him constant messages on social media, bordering on infatuation.
But once the woman gains his trust, she will break the news to him about a family emergency — her grandmother or another family member falling ill and being hospitalized. She will ask for his help and he won’t hesitate to send her money.
When he does, a young man in an internet cafe in Nigeria or Eastern Europe who has been fooling his elderly American victim with a fake internet profile will pocket his cash, ask for more or move on to his next victim.
The saddest part is it’ll take a long time for the victim to accept that he’s been scammed and may never file a criminal complaint out of fear of ridicule, law-enforcement officials say.
“Most of the scammers are out of the country, so we have little recourse to go after them. That’s why we want to educate the public, make sure they don’t fall for these (scams) in the first place,” said Daniel J. Ramos, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s El Paso Field Office.
Romance and confidence scams are increasingly being reported across the country. Last year, 20,000 people in the United States fell prey to them, losing a combined $475 million in the process. Texas is a big market for scammers, giving its large elderly population and perceived wealth. On the border, the losses from these scams are skyrocketing. Victims from El Paso to Midland, Texas were being bilked out of $1 million in 2019 compared to only $265,262 in 2018. A single victim in the El Paso suburb of Canutillo, Texas, was taken for $122,257 in a 2018 scam.
Given the vulnerability of the victims — who are mostly elderly men with but a basic grasp of technology and social media — the FBI is asking their younger kin to keep an eye on them so they don’t lose their life’s savings.
“The elderly a lot of times aren’t very computer savvy, so the younger members should be in contact with their relatives, let them know the different ways to protect themselves,” Ramos said.
Women and younger men have also been victimized, so the recommendations apply to everyone.
The first is, be skeptical if your new social media friend doesn’t want to meet in person, call or send a recent snapshot. Secondly, scammers build fake profiles grabbing a photo from a random person on the internet, so utilize Google’s reverse image search to find out who the face really belongs to, Ramos said. Third, if they ask you for money or to hold on to money for them (money laundering), don’t hesitate to contact authorities and alert the social media companies to immediately suspend the fake account.
“If they’re already involved (with the scammer), help them do those counterchecks and contact our Internet Computer Crimes Unit at www.ic3.gov, that’s where you can file a claim. Also, send a message to the websites hosting the profile — they may not know it’s a scammer,” Ramos said.
Other El Paso FBI agents who investigate romance scams recalled gut-wrenching instances in which the victim refuses to believe he’s been scammed, even when confronted by the evidence. They hang on to the idea that there’s a real person — a real friend with real problems — who needs their help, the agents said.
They also said the scammers may still have a use for you even if you don’t have money. There have been instances of internet “friends” asking Americans to store profits from either an inheritance or a suposed windfall from a gold mine investment. They are then told to send checks for $5,000 to $7,000 to third parties, becoming unwittingly involved in a crime of money laundering.
The scammers operate year-round, but this is a time of the year — February, the month of love — in which lonely people may feel the need to be in a relationship, even if it’s only over the internet.
“The message we want to send to the victims is if it sounds too good to be true, if the person is perfect, you may want to use a bit of caution,” Ramos said.