Relationship scams: For one Army veteran, the heart briefly overruled the brain
By TREVA LIND | The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. | Published: February 23, 2019
In late January, 81-year-old Jon Louis fell for an online relationship scam. The con nearly cost him $3,000.
The Spokane widower got a Facebook friend request from someone claiming to be a woman named Pat Frost, stationed overseas in the military. Louis is a volunteer AARP fraud prevention trainer on issues such as identity theft, but he wasn't familiar with cons using social media.
"I had no training in that area of relationship scams," he said. "My heart got ahead of my brain. The person I was dealing with was excellent at getting to my heart. I've been a widower for about four and a half years.
"My guess is they knew about it, because that was on my Facebook. I had posted something like, this is the third anniversary of my wife's death, that sort of thing."
Normally, if Louis gets a Facebook friend request from someone he doesn't know, he ignores it. But he was intrigued by the woman's photo and accepted the request around Jan. 19.
"She was so cute, and I connected with her. She shared some of her personal information. According to what she told me, she was a staff sergeant in the Army in the war zone. She wanted to come home."
The dialogue made Louis believe she was divorced and serving with the United Nations forces in Yemen, a war-torn country.
The poser seemed to know just what to say to tug at his heart-strings, he said, and it soon felt like a caring relationship. Then "Pat" requested funds for travel costs, so she could visit him. Louis sought assistance at STCU to forward the money, but an employee recognized it as fraud, he said.
"I've gone back and thanked them profusely at Spokane Teachers Credit Union," Louis said.
After the credit union flagged the scam, Louis traded a couple of messages with "Pat," and on Feb. 12 put a stop to them. He said he's only out the cost of a $50 gift card he had sent earlier.
"I agree; I've been scammed," he said. "I kept copies of almost everything and have sent it on to Crime Watch."
Now, Louis wants others to know how a sophisticated con artist using online connections can make someone believe they're developing a caring relationship.
The messages were initially on Facebook and then almost immediately, the person requested communication on Google Hangouts.
"She was adamant she couldn't talk to me by phone, or she'd be in big trouble," he said.
With this con, an individual claims to need a U.N. emergency leave and sends an email address to receive a form making the request.
Louis said he was a little suspicious that the form wasn't on letterhead and had grammar and spelling mistakes. He shrugged it off.
The form mostly requested information about him, and it also listed a $5,500 processing fee.
Louis said the woman told him she had the money to repay him but couldn't access the funds while in a war zone. On retirement income, Louis said he told the woman that he couldn't afford it.
"Then I got a note from the secretary general that he and his wife would come up with $2,500 because of their caring and respect for Pat," he said. "I was then sent an email from the secretary general giving me instructions as to where to send the $3,000."
"Before that $5,500 showed its ugly face, she had already landed my heart."
He had an almost unused credit card, which he took to STCU to request help forwarding funds. That's when he heard, "this is obviously a fraud, and our job is to protect our depositors."
"She said, 'We can't let you do this.' Somehow my brain took over from my heart."
Louis said in hindsight, there were red flags, including an address in Florida to send money that was a private home. Then, he received a different email updating that, with an address in Georgia.
Certain facts claimed by the con artist didn't add up, such as the woman having a child of a certain age. Another suspicious comment was that the person soon started talking about wanting to marry him.
"I'm falling for this hook, line and sinker," he said.
His wife, Katharine Surette, died in October 2014. She was blind, but the couple had an active life together. They traveled on a tandem bike when she was 65, and Surette had a business making jewelry.
Louis said he remains active and volunteers frequently for community organizations.
"I figure the reason I'm still here is to help people," he said. "You can imagine what people in Yemen are going through, and I'm thinking she's in the middle of it.
"I think there is more I can do now for others who might get caught up in the same scam, and maybe see it faster."
Louis isn't alone among thousands of Americans scammed within matchmaking websites, dating apps and social media, said the AARP Washington state office. It released a new survey, finding that 37 percent of Washington state residents polled reported that they, a family member or a friend have encountered an attempted online relationship scam.
Fifty-six percent of people responded that they have used the internet to find friends, dates or romantic partners on dating sites, apps and social media. The AARP survey found that 18 percent of state residents either have been victimized by an online relationship scam or know someone who was.
The AARP Fraud Watch Network has launched an educational campaign to raise awareness of online relationship fraud. The information includes webinars, podcasts, video and tip sheet. These are some warning signs that an online suitor might be a fraud:
They profess love too quickly.
The person immediately wants to leave the dating website and communicate with you through email or instant messaging.
Your new romantic interest sends you a picture that looks more like a model from a fashion magazine than an ordinary snapshot.
He or she repeatedly promises to meet you in person but always seems to come up with an excuse to cancel.
Requests are made for money for a variety of reasons: travel, medical emergencies, visas or other official documents, or losses from a financial setback.
The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center reports there were 15,000 victims of confidence fraud or romance fraud in 2017, with more than half older than age 50, the AARP said. Financial losses in these scams totaled $220 million in 2016, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The AARP Fraud Watch Network, launched in 2013, is a free resource. A helpline is available at (877) 908-3360 to speak with staff and volunteers trained in fraud counseling.
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