Romance scams blossom online

A man befriends a woman in her 60s or 70s through Facebook or a dating site, flattering her with lines like “Hey, beautiful” and asking about her sick relative.

An online relationship develops.

The woman’s newfound online boyfriend — who says he is working overseas but lives in the United States — says he’s coming home; he sends her his airline itinerary and promises they will live happily ever after.

Then a last-minute “emergency” hits, and he asks her to send money.

New Hampshire authorities have received about 100 reports this year alone from victims of romance scams collectively bilked out of millions of dollars.

“They really think they met the love of their life,” said Assistant Attorney General Brandon Garod.

Even after sending tens of thousands of dollars to someone they never will meet, “the women refuse to believe initially that this is a scam,” said Garod, who works in the Attorney General’s elder abuse and exploitation unit.

“In recent months, we’ve seen a huge uptick in the number of reports we’re getting,” Garod said.

One woman reported sending more than $200,000. “It would be atypical to be less than $50,000,” Garod said.

“Stealing not only the money in their pocketbooks, but their hearts as well,” said Jamie Bulen, associate state director of communications for AARP New Hampshire.

Bulen said the state’s population is aging; New Hampshire boasts the nation’s second highest median age.

Garod called such scams a “long con,” with some victims wiring money from their banks multiple times.

“We have seen scammers teaching elderly people to purchase and send bitcoin,” he said.

“I think the takeaway is if you are online and you are corresponding with someone who claims to be far away and is not able to meet with you, that should be a red flag,” Garod said.

“It’s much more acceptable to date online and there’s just a lot of fraud out there,” Bulen said. “People get taken emotionally.”

With few exceptions, Garod said, the targets are widowed, divorced or lonely women. “They’re online and looking for companionship,” he said.

The scammer strikes up an online conversation and suggests they exchange email addresses, phone messages and texts.

On Facebook, the scammer makes a friend request and looks for something they both can relate to, such as being from the same town. In actuality, the scammers have come from countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica and India.

“Whether it starts on Facebook or starts on a dating site, it has the same trajectory in terms of the scam,” Garod said.

The scammers have daily conversations for days or weeks with their victims.

“The scammer really tries to build a foundation of trust with the elderly person,” Garod said. “It inappropriately quickly escalates from friendly talk to romantic talk.”

Plans are made for the scammer to fly to Manchester or Boston, but then a day or two before his scheduled arrival, the scammer asks her to send money.

“There’s some sort of catastrophic accident that prevents them from coming, and (they) always need money,” Garod said.

Often, the excuse can be to pay medical bills or replace damaged equipment.

Banks or family members sometimes detect the scams.

“Anytime anybody is asking you for money and you haven’t met that person, assume it’s a scam,” Garod said.

“A simple deny” to a Facebook friend request would have prevented the whole thing, he said.

The truth is tough for victims to face.

“They refuse to believe that they’ve been scammed; (that) is the initial reaction from everyone we’ve seen,” Garod said.

Thursday, December 12, 2019