Agent: Romance schemes prey on lonely seniors

Published 1:38 am Friday, March 1, 2019

FBI Special Agent Eric Lawson opened his comments at Thursday’s fraud summit with a question.

“How many of y’all have Facebook?”

A a number of hands went up, the 14-year veteran of the FBI almost muttered, “That’s what scares me.”

Lawson said the bureau investigates a number of scams that originate from a “relationship” built on social media. Take, for  instance, the romance scam.

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“Almost all of the contact from the perpetrator to the victim is over Facebook,” Lawson said. “The last one I investigated, a woman was contacted on Facebook by supposedly a soldier in Iraq who said he was trying to get out of the Army.

“He romanced her, talked nice to her, sent her nice messages and stuff,” he said. “Then he told her he needed to ship a lot of paperwork and gear home so he could get out of the Army. Then he asked, ‘Could you send me $10,000 to get my gear out?’

“She ended up losing $100K, because it went on and on and on,” Lawson said. “When we interviewed –  she was about 60 – she had been a widow for four years, and when it all boiled down, she said, ‘I guess I just didn’t realize how lonely I was.’ ”

Sadly, Lawson said, most of these scammers are overseas.

“There is nothing we can do to get the money back when it goes overseas.”

Lawson said if you could turn back time and use 1985 technology, you would be pretty safe.

Lawson advised those in attendance to learn to block numbers on their cell phones.

“You can’t stop people from calling you,” he said. “If you hang up, they will just call you back, so you should learn to block their number. That’s about the only thing you can do on a phone as a personal defense.”

A second kind of scam the FBI sees regularly, he said, is older residents being contacted by someone claiming to be the FBI or IRS and tells the person being scammed that they are potentially in legal trouble. That is typically followed with a suggestion that by paying a fine, the “trouble” could go away.

“The FBI never emails somebody and says, ‘Pay us,’ he said. “Never send money to anybody in any of these scams.”

Lawson said when a person is scammed of a smaller amount, like $2,500, there is rarely anything that can be done. There are too many of those cases for agents to investigate all of them, he said, and it costs more than that to investigate.

“If you get scammed of  $2,500, be glad it’s a few grand and that’s it, ‘cause it’s gone,” he said. “Most of those scammers are coming from overseas.”