The Sweetheart Scam: Beware the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
Life is not always what it seems
Our trust in others sometimes deems
A different ending than we had hoped
We dangle by a cord and grope
Not understanding, we barely cope
Deception is a ghastly game
Yet, played by many all the same
Our hearts were blind to their intent
Our trust in others now is spent
The wolf in sheep's clothing never laments
We have all heard different versions of how a well-educated, wealthy, respectable member of the community was somehow duped into sending large quantities of money to a complete stranger; sometimes losing their entire life savings. And then we pause, thinking to ourselves, "That could never happen to me!"
The Sweetheart Scam is one of the most widely utilized modes of preying upon a victim to amass financial gain. It's a scheme that can be perpetrated online or in-person. The scammer convinces their victim that they are in love, using the emotion to bilk money from the unsuspecting person—oftentimes a lonely elder. This is all brilliantly orchestrated, like a maestro conducting The New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
You may ask yourself: "How could someone be so foolish as to send money to a complete stranger?"
Although almost any age group can be lured into playing this game of deceit, the number one target of sweetheart scams is usually men and women over age 60; the older the better. Seniors—especially widows, widowers and recent divorcees are the key component to this manipulation of the heart. And it is not gender specific; both men and women are equally affected as unsuspecting victims.
John Joyce (SAIC), the Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service Tampa Field Office is no stranger to investigating internet scams. "With most internet scams, including the sweetheart scam, it is difficult to identify the scammers due to the fact that they are usually conducting their business from outside of the United States.," he says. "Cooperation from foreign governments is often spotty or non-existent. These investigations usually do not result in the capture of the scammer or the recovery of monies. In most cases, the victim's best option is to break off communication with the scammer and cut their losses."
Are you wondering how this scam actually goes down?
Love or, shall I say, the illusion of love is the key dynamic in fulfilling the sweetheart scam. According to Special Agent Joyce:
"We do a lot of work investigating various types of scams from the internet. Unfortunately it is very common. Essentially the victim meets another person, a scammer on a singles or dating website who poses as a person also looking for a relationship online. They chat over the internet, exchange photos with the scammer sending a photo of a very good looking woman or man depending who their target is. The victim thinks they have developed a relationship and over time falls in love. Eventually the scammer comes up with stories about how he/she needs an operation or has a major problem in their life which requires an outlay of money. The victim, feeling the need to help their new found love, ends up wiring money over and over again until they are bilked of all their money. Since the scammers are usually corresponding with the victim outside of the United States, this makes it close to impossible for US authorities to identify or prosecute them. Most victims are astonished and left speechless by the scammer, not realizing that these deceptive individuals are professionals at manipulating human emotions and attaining what they need financially. Then, just as suddenly as the scammer appeared on the scene…once they achieve their financial goal, they will drop the unsuspecting victim like a hotcake and disappear from the face of the earth…as if they never existed."
Thomas gets taken in by Alicia
Let's take the case of a senior gentleman, who we shall call Thomas. At age 74, Thomas is a wealthy, retired Beverly Hills, CA, family physician who recently lost his wife to breast cancer. With the hope of restarting his life after several months of grieving, he joined a dating website to explore the idea of possibly finding a female companion to share dinners, walks on the beach, the symphony and other social events. Needless to say, Thomas was a needy soul at this time in his life… lonely, emotionally vulnerable and looking for love in all the wrong places.
This is when a victim is truly ripe for the picking by what I like to refer to as the "wolf in sheep's clothing" who is getting ready to pounce.
One evening, Thomas struck up a conversation online with an individual who presented herself as a younger woman, who we shall call "Alicia." She truly was a lovely, attractive woman in her late 40's; a divorcee living in London, England with a college-aged daughter and she was struggling to make ends meet.
After just a few weeks, the conversation had escalated from a basic "Hello. How are you?" to "Hello, I think about you day and night, especially when I am_______." (I'll let you use your imagination to fill in the blank.) Within a month, Thomas and Alicia were professing their love to each other. As far as Thomas was concerned, although he dearly missed his departed wife, he had now met another soul mate. And he would do just about anything for the curvaceous Alicia as their relationship continued to advance.
Suddenly, Alicia missed an evening of corresponding online with Thomas. This seemed odd to Thomas, and he was distraught over not being able to make contact with his online lover. But Alicia appeared online the following evening and told Thomas her heartbreaking story. Alicia's daughter had been killed in a car accident and she would not be able to pay back the student loans and pay for the funeral/burial costs without having to take out a special loan.
Thomas was reeling with grief for his lovely Alicia and he willingly offered to send her whatever she needed. A cash sum of $45,000 would certainly be enough to cover the expenses, so he thought. But Alicia had other ideas. She gratefully accepted the transfer of monies into her British bank account, making sure that she always kept the door open for additional funds to be sent.
Two weeks later, Alicia needed to pay for a new roof on her home. Once again, Thomas sent another sum of money—$10,000—with no questions asked. Then, Alicia needed to replace her Mercedes that had been totaled in the daughter's car accident. Of course, Thomas graciously wired her $75,000.
Nearly a month after the death of the daughter, Thomas begged Alicia to come visit him in Beverly Hills. He desperately wanted to take the relationship to a higher level of physical intimacy. He had waited long enough to be with his lovely Alicia. Alicia accepted his offer, professing her love for him. Thomas wired her the monies to purchase a first class, round-trip ticket, promising that he would meet her at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) with his private limousine, driver, flowing champagne and two weeks of idyllic frolic and fun.
On the evening that Alicia was to arrive at LAX, Thomas made sure everything was in place—the polished black stretch limousine, his personal driver adorned in a black tuxedo, the chilled Crystal champagne and he had even made a hotel penthouse suite reservation at The Four Season's Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Then, as the final moment drew near and his sweetheart Alicia was to be arriving in baggage claim for British Airways, he began to worry and his heart suddenly filled with uncontrollable woe. There was no sign of any woman who even barely resembled Alicia. Not only was he unable to reach her by phone, email or text in the moments, hours and days that followed, he was clearly devastated by the emotional deception that he had been taken for thousands of dollars; falsely promised a love that never was.
Thomas had been fleeced by the wolf in sheep's clothing.
10 tips for spotting and preventing scams
Even you could be scammed by a sweetheart lover. But, according to local law enforcement authorities, including the Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Secret Service, there are steps one can take to avoid becoming a victim of a sweetheart scam:
Be aware of your environment: Try to look beyond the superficial. Whether that is online or in person at a senior center, church bingo event, at a restaurant, the local grocery store or the U.S. post office. Unfortunately in this day and age, deception comes in all shapes and sizes.
Be honest with yourself: Look in the mirror and ask yourself the million dollar question—"Why would a much younger individual ever want anything to do with me?" If you discover anything regarding money in your answer, you know you are headed for trouble, with a capital "T."
Never transfer or wire money to anyone: This is especially if you're communicating with a stranger who lives overseas, whom you've never met in person.
Keep in touch with family: Share your new social interests and friendships with them. Your loved ones usually have your highest good in mind, and can be trusted to provide honest advice and guidance.
Consult a professional if an online relationship seems fishy: Law enforcement agents have investigated scammers and they are experienced with sweetheart scams since the increase usage of social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest.
Do your homework: Nowadays, many people have left some kind of digital footprint that even the minimally tech-savvy person can find. Use Google, Mozilla Fox, Bing or other internet search engines to discover additional information about new individuals you meet online or in person. Many scammers do not present themselves to be who they actually are. Deception truly is a ghastly game.
Limit your use of social media: Scammers steal personal information online and utilize your social media profile to learn more about you, your routines, your vulnerabilities, likes and dislikes. Some even monitor your new feed for friends and relatives they can pose as.
Pursue relationships face-to-face: Avoid online dating, if possible.
Don't feel ashamed: Although it may be embarrassing that you were defrauded, understand that you are dealing with seasoned scammers who have learned how to make a very good living from their inappropriate actions. Your misfortune brings them good, if not great, fortune! Make an effort to report the scam as soon as possible to local law enforcement officials. The police department can only take the appropriate action to investigate when you alert them to the event.
Use common sense: This goes for any interactions with strangers, both online and in-person, to avoid becoming another victim. There are many wolves in sheep's clothing roaming about the internet and in your neighborhood, just waiting for the opportunity to fleece you!