Con artists are using dating apps to prey on lonely people, and older ones are a growing target. In a pattern that accelerated during the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, romance scams claimed $139 million from adults age 60 and older in 2020, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission, up from $84 million the year before.
In one of the more alarming episodes of what has become a leading type of fraud aimed at older Americans, a Holocaust survivor was swindled out of his life savings of nearly $3 million, according to a federal indictment unsealed in New York last week.
How do romance scams work?
Alone at home as Covid-19 spread in the summer of 2020, Kate Kleinert decided to accept a Facebook friend request from a handsome stranger. He described himself as a Norwegian doctor working in Iraq and called himself Tony.
After a couple of months of daily communication on encrypted messaging apps, Tony began asking for money. By December 2020, Ms. Kleinert, 69, had given Tony and two people claiming to be his children some $39,000 in gift cards. The scam devoured Ms. Kleinert’s savings, her late husband’s life insurance, her pension and her income from Social Security, leaving her destitute.
Ms. Kleinert, who was living in Glenolden, Pa., outside Philadelphia, at the time and now lives in Lancaster County, went to the local police and then the state police. She was told that there was nothing they could do.
“The loss that hurts the most is losing his love and losing the family that I thought I was going to have,” she said.
Ms. Kleinert’s scammer followed a typical playbook, experts said: claiming to be a professional working abroad; exploiting a victim’s loneliness to quickly establish a bond; building an imagined future with them; and then planning an in-person meeting that depended on the victim’s willingness to part with money.
“I’ve seen elders mortgage their houses, borrow large sums of money from their neighbors, empty out their retirement accounts,” said Michael Delaney, a Chicago-based lawyer who specializes in elder law.
“It is absolutely astonishing to me how much money someone can get out of an elderly person’s account before anyone really notices and puts a stop to it,” he said.
Why are older people targeted?
While young people are more likely to fall victim to online scams overall, older people are more susceptible to romance scams. The reason, experts say, is simple: They usually have more money.
Peaches Stergo, the woman charged with wire fraud in the federal case involving the Holocaust survivor, extracted some $2.8 million from the victim, an 87-year-old Manhattan man whom she met on a dating website. Federal prosecutors said she used some of the money to pay for a condominium in Florida, rooms at the Ritz Carlton, gold bars, a Corvette and luxury watches and clothing.
The median loss from a romance scam for people 70 and older in 2021 was $9,000, according to the F.T.C., compared with $2,400 across all age groups.
“When older adults lose money,” said Amy Nofziger, the director of fraud victim support for the AARP, “they lose more money because they have more money to lose.”
The F.B.I. has sounded the alarm about romance scams. In 2021, the bureau said, Americans of all age groups coughed up more than a billion dollars to con artists, up from more than $362 million in 2018.
Can dating sites be held liable?
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives online platforms, including dating sites and apps, immunity from liability for content posted by their users.
The F.T.C. sued Match Group in 2019, alleging that the company, which runs online dating platforms like Match.com, Tinder and Hinge, was allowing fraudsters to disguise themselves as normal daters.
A federal court in Texas dismissed the claims last year, citing Section 230.
Still, in recognition of the problem, Match Group rolled out a public awareness campaign earlier this month alerting users of red flags.
While Section 230 makes it hard to sue online platforms over the content they host, individuals can be held legally liable if they willingly become part of a conspiracy to defraud.
Glenda Seim, an 81-year-old Missouri woman, was sentenced last year to five years of probation after pleading guilty to two federal felonies. She admitted that she had acted as a “money mule” on behalf of an online love interest, a man claiming to be an American working in Nigeria in need of money to return home.
She pawned electronics sent to her home and set up fraudulent bank accounts, ignoring federal agents who told her that she was being scammed.
What can you do if you suspect you or a loved one are being scammed?
Ms. Seim’s reluctance to accept that her online romance wasn’t real is common among older victims of this variety of fraud, Mr. Delaney, the elder-law specialist, said.
“Despite showing incontrovertible evidence that the person they think they’re in love with isn’t who they say they are and the money isn’t being used for what they say it’s being used for, they will defend that exploiter through anything,” he said.
Usually, he added, one of the victim’s grown children must step in to put a stop to it.
This is what happened in the wire fraud case involving the Holocaust survivor in New York. By the time the victim confided in his son, the 62 checks he had written over the course of four years had been cashed.
Still, investigators were able to arrest Ms. Stergo — an unusual outcome in internet romance scams, where perpetrators are rarely found and losses are almost never recoverable.
While there is little recourse for recovering funds that in most cases have already been spent, a family member’s involvement can often halt a scam before it goes any further. In instances where older people refuse to accept that they have been victims of a scam, family members can file an emergency petition for temporary guardianship and ask a judge to issue an order that will immediately freeze bank accounts.
As Ms. Kleinert found, there is little that law enforcement can do to track down online scammers, particularly those operating from foreign I.P. addresses.
After losing all of her money, Ms. Kleinert turned to the young people in her life to tighten her online privacy settings. But after a fire destroyed her home and a friend set up a GoFundMe page to help her, she found she was still vulnerable.
After months of silence, she said, Tony got back in touch to ask for more money.
“‘I know you have money,’” she said he told her, “‘I saw your GoFundMe page.’
“That sent a chill down my spine,” she said.