FBI warns people stuck at home could be more vulnerable to online romance scams

They send flowers. They spend months chatting online. They share poems expressing their love.

For people forced to stay home during the pandemic, an online connection can offer solace and love. But federal officials warn of a more sinister presence lurking on social media: con artists seeking to defraud vulnerable victims by posing as romantic suitors.

Nearly 11,500 people in the U.S. reported this year they were victims of romance scams involving a total loss of $346 million, according to the FBI. This time last year, nearly 10,400 victims reported they were defrauded of $274 million. Data from the Federal Trade Commission also shows an increase in reported romance scams in the first half of this year.

Because scams often unfold over months or years, agents said it wasn’t clear the rise in cases was connected to the pandemic. But FBI special agent Laura Brunstetter said there’s no doubt the pandemic has created prime conditions for tricksters as people spend more time online to combat loneliness.

“It’s just the perfect environment,” Brunstetter said.

Agents with the FBI Houston branch hosted a Tuesday afternoon Twitter forum to educate and encourage people to recognize and report romance scams. Questions from more than a dozen people suspicious about their own online encounters or curious about romance scams flowed in during the two-hour session.

Houston is a hot spot for such crimes, said Keith Houston, Harris County assistant district attorney. Roughly half of the financial cyber crimes he investigates are romance scams, the majority of which involve victims older than 50, he said.

“With the current crisis in romance scams, the problem is people are home and they’re alone, and unfortunately that’s a bad situation,” Houston said.

The ploys typically involve a network of well-organized criminals, Brunstetter said. Often, the scam begins like a regular relationship with a message via social media that leads to continued conversations via text or email. The scammers pose as a romantic partner, sometimes for six months to a year, before asking for money that is supposedly for a sick child, an investment or a business venture.

“Most people wouldn’t give money away to a stranger that you just met, but after you’ve been talking to them for that long, it becomes easier to swallow,” Brunstetter said.

Savvier scam artists have hired actors to meet with victims one time to build trust, she said.

In one recent case, a Houston woman in her 50s was defrauded of $2 million in a scheme that began in 2014, according to the FBI.

Two Nigerian men implicated in the case, Kunle Mutiu Amoo, 49, and Lanre Sunday Adeoba, 62, were sentenced to 36 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $86,500 in restitution by a federal judge on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to the FBI.

The woman, whose story is featured on the FBI’s website, fell in love with a man online after they exchanged emails and phone calls about church and prayed and sang together. He claimed to be working in construction, and she wired him money for a project at his request.

Amoo and Adeoba posed as South African diplomats who needed the woman’s financial help to transport money on behalf of her so-called boyfriend, according to the FBI. They admitted they tried to defraud the woman of more than $500,000.

“I not only invested money in this man but there is a big, huge piece of my heart that I invested in him,” the victim told the FBI. “It’s not just the finances, it’s the emotional part, too—being embarrassed, being ashamed, being humiliated.”

Most of the fraudsters are foreign, Houston said, so the crimes fall outside the jurisdiction of the FBI or Harris County. Still, the district attorney’s office charges local people recruited to participate in the multi-layered schemes by laundering money or opening illegal accounts.

People targeted as victims, too, can become involved in criminal activity both with and without their knowledge when they start receiving benefits.

Harris County prosecutors are drafting arrest warrants for a man who was warned by bank security officials that he was the victim of a romance scam, Houston said. The man refused to stop, however, and was involved in a theft of $300,000.

A bust in 2019 netted charges against nine local residents who acted as “money mules” or recruiters in a scheme funneling money to Nigeria under the guise of an airplane sale, Houston said.

Many of the scams go unreported due to the stigma or shame of falling victim to an emotionally and financially devastating scam, said Christina Garza, spokeswoman for the FBI Houston branch.

One woman was only convinced that she was being scammed when Houston showed her the website from which her apparent suitor had copy-and-pasted poems, he said.

“They’ll send flowers, they’ll invest a little bit of money,” Houston said. “They’ll make you think it’s real.”

People should use common sense, be vigilant and look for red flags such as a person claiming to be overseas, making excuses to avoid meeting in person or acting too good to be true.

Anyone who suspects fraud should do their research on the potential scammer, ask lots of questions and conduct a reverse image search on Google to find out if the person’s photo is linked to other fake accounts.

Online daters should stay on the platform for at least a month before moving conversations to private channels like WhatsApp, Houston recommended. Many dating and social media sites are able to detect scammers.

The FBI encouraged people to report romance scams online.

anna.bauman@chron.com

— to www.houstonchronicle.com

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