Heartbroken and Broke

Image and animation: Camila Puerta Martinez

By Estephani Cano

After two divorces, an abusive relationship, and more than 10 years of being single, it wasn’t easy for Pamela Limes, 59, to make the decision to put herself back on the dating market. But her family and friends had told her about the successful and romantic stories of couples who met online, and Limes thought that could be a good way to give love another chance.

She did not want to waste her time, so she researched dozens of dating sites, and finally decided on Match.com, the largest and oldest dating service on the web. In her short but forceful profile, Limes was clear with her intentions: “Not interested in long distance

Among the suitors, a charming fellow named Thomas Marcus George, 58, stood out. He was a handsome widower, loving single father and a very successful mechanical engineer. He said he lived in California, but told Limes that he would be moving to her town in Lehigh Acres, Florida, in a matter of weeks. “What a pleasant coincidence!”

“I don’t mind waiting a couple of weeks,” Limes replied. She thought it was strange, however, that George, who said he came from Belgium, immediately started calling her “baby,” “honey” and “my queen” But she attributed his behavior to his Belgian roots.

The above video is based on a real interaction. 

He also said he was lonely, just like her. “It was like I was under a spell. I could not sleep. I could not eat. Everything in my life was about him,” she said. In a few weeks, in ways she can’t really explain, George won her heart—and ultimately her wallet, just by sending late night text messages.

With promises of marriage, endless excuses about why he couldn’t visit, and bizarre stories about accidents, illness and even mafia persecutions, he convinced her to wire him more than $12,000 over a period of five months. “I almost lost my home. And I owe my family, my sister, my daughter lots of money because of him,” said Limes, who makes $14 an hour as a secretary in her county’s probation office.

Eventually, Limes discovered that Thomas was actually a young man from Nigeria named Paul, and that he also courted and requested money from other women, with the same promises of love. Even so, she forgave him, several times. “I just wanted it to be real,” she said.

With the proliferation of dating websites and apps, sweetheart scams like the one that lured Limes have hooked tens of thousands of people, most of them women. FBI data shows that more than 80 percent of the victims are female—and most of those were over the age of 50, many of them widowed, divorced or not very tech savvy.

The above video is based on a real interaction. 

According to the FBI, in 2017 these scammers made more than $210 million dollars, and prompted more than 15,300 complaints. But researchers say that the number of scams may be much higher, since a large percentage of crimes are not reported. The states with the highest number of victims were California, followed by Texas, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.

“The criminals who carry out romance scams are experts at what they do. They spend hours honing their skills and sometimes keep journals on their victims to better understand how to manipulate and exploit them,” said FBI Public Affairs Specialist Lindsey G. Ram.

Doug Shadel, head of fraud watch for the AARP, has interviewed many scammers on different continents over the years. When he would ask about their main strategy to convince people to do things, he said, they would always answer the same thing: Get the victim under the “ether.”

“That refers to a heightened emotional state where you are being driven by your emotions and your logic and reasoning goes out the window,” said Shadel. Dating sites are a rich environment for romance scammers, Shadel said, because “a lot of people on those sites are already in a heightened emotional state.”They’re looking for love. They’re looking for the one,” he added.

Author and romance scam expert Joyce M. Short says that online dating victims are so vulnerable and lonely that they’re easier targets. “Many times, their health is diminishing, for example they have hearing or visual loss, and they do not have the capacity to make an appropriate decision,” Short said.

Scammers use sophisticated manipulation and fraud techniques, according to Shadel, sometimes scamming dozens of people simultaneously. The most experienced scammers work in groups of five to six people where each one has a different role and can pose as a family member or business partner of the scammer. They steal photos from the internet and create several profiles on different websites and social networks.

“Their modus operandi is almost always the same,” said Shadel, “First, they portray themselves as a very attractive person, either a man or a woman. They write a generic description that is all  things to all people: I am not too religious but I am spiritual, I am not too tall and not too short, I like all kind of music. Then, once they have contact with the victim they bombard him or her with love.”

According to Shadel, everything is part of a meticulously orchestrated crime where absolutely everything is scripted: Constant messages using sweet poems and nicknames and almost immediate declarations of love. Romance scammers usually keep victims up chatting very late at night to deprive them of sleep to weaken their immune system. Once they are infatuated with the flattery and constant attention, scammers invent dramatic stories, such as suddenly having a sick relative who needs emergency surgery.

Who is scammed online? (By age groups)

Chart: Rekha Shanmugham & Lenn Robbins |  Source: FBI

“They never ask the victim to give them money. They just say that they want to borrow it for a short amount of time,” he said. The FBI reports that most of these frauds originate in Nigeria, Ghana, England, Canada, and Malaysia. It is almost impossible to recover the money sent.

According to psychologist Monica T. Whitty, who wrote a book titled, “The Online Romance Scam: A Serious Cybercrime,” victims of romance scammers suffer a double fraud: a financial loss and the loss of a promised relationship. The fraud creates a trauma comparable to mourning a death. This can trigger a deep depression, anxiety and a loss of trust in others.

Some victims have suicidal feelings, writes Whitty. “It’s like a strong addiction,” said Melonie Cutler, 63, who had to go to therapy for several months after sending over $16,000 to two different men she met on Match.com. For several months, she talked to both of them at different times. When one disappeared because he could not get more money from her, the other would show up full of compliments and oaths of love. Cutler sensed that they were both the same person, but she could not stop herself from talking to them. She said she eventually ended up in the hospital because of panic attacks.

Malou, 61, who preferred not to use her full name because of embarrassment for privacy, said that she would lock herself in her room for hours to cry after being scammed.

In March, she says she had fallen madly in love with a handsome engineer from England named Francis Aedan, who befriended her on Facebook and started referring to her as “my future wife.” She bit, as she felt isolated because she is the primary caregiver of her 90-year-old disabled husband. When he asked her for $6,000 to unfreeze the bank account of his business, she sent it to him. When he wanted another $5,000, she says she mortgaged her car and took cash advances from her credit cards. To prove that what he as saying was legit, he sent her letters from well-known banks in Malaysia, photographs of his passport and screenshots of the checks he was sending her to cash. Everything was fake.

“I went to the bank several times to claim the money, but there was never anything in my account,” said Malou. Not long after, she confronted Francis after discovering that he was courting several of her Facebook friends through other accounts with the same photo and a different name. He then blocked her account and never talked to her again.

Malou, like so many other sweetheart scam victims, hasn’t yet recovered from the blow, financially and emotionally. “I cry every day because I do not know how I’m going to pay off my debt,” she added, “but also because I miss him so much.”