Online love scams costing North Carolinians millions
Posted November 6, 2013
Updated November 7, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — To Lisa, everything about Glen was charming – the way he said he loved her and the way he texted her at the same time each day. But the sweet, smooth-talking Army lieutenant she thought she was falling in love with had a secret – one that would cost Lisa about $8,000.
Lisa, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of dozens of North Carolinians who have fallen victim in recent years to online scammers who promise love but leave their victims heartbroken and, sometimes, broke.
“It’s awful. It’s just awful,” Lisa said. “It’s got to stop. Somehow, it’s go to stop.”
Since 2011, the North Carolina Attorney General’s office has heard from 70 victims who've lost a total of $3.6 million. This year, at least 17 victims have come forward, claiming they’ve lost nearly $700,000 combined.
Most of the victims are women and, on average, in their early 60s, according to statistics from the Attorney General’s office. A 75-year-old Davidson County woman reported losing the largest sum of money in recent years. The Attorney General’s records show she sent an online love interest about $1.3 million.
FBI officials say scams like these – often called romance or Casanova scams – make up more than 10 percent of all financial losses in the U.S. Experts say all it takes to be a victim is an email address and a willingness to be in a relationship.
‘I believed him’
Lisa says she was ready be in a relationship with Glen, who contacted her in an online dating forum last fall and wrote, “Text me sometime.” Lisa says she checked out his profile and thought, “Wow, cute,” when she first saw his picture. He told her he was an Army lieutenant serving in Afghanistan and would be retiring soon. They started texting right away.
The two sent instant messages back and forth for more than a month when, at the end of November, Glen wrote to say that he had been shot in the leg and needed medicine.
“I don’t know (anything) about the military,” Lisa said. “I said, ‘Well, what do you need?’ And he said, ‘$300.’ I was like, ‘Ohh, hmm … I don’t know about that.’”
She checked out his story and found that "there was a patrolman there that did get shot," she said. After she finally agreed to help, Glen instructed Lisa to send the money to an agent in Nigeria, where all military money is sent, he explained.
“I didn’t know (any) better,” Lisa said. “I believed him.”
One month later, Glen needed Lisa’s help again – this time, $100 for pain medication. Two months later, in February, he asked for more money – $100 to help him come home. Lisa says she received flight schedules and emails, making her believe his story.
Despite his repeated requests for money, Lisa says she continued to correspond with Glen and even opened a bank account for him for when he returned home because he promised he would be with her in North Carolina. She deposited $25 but closed the account after the bank detected fraudulent activity, she said.
Then, in June, Lisa says Glen somehow got her bank information. When she questioned him, he explained, “I’ve got my ways,” and told her to check her account. There, she found $6,000, which didn’t belong to her. Glen instructed her to withdraw the money and send it to him. Before she could, her bank alerted her.
“It was like somebody had put (the money) in and snatched it out, along with everything else, and I was showing $2,000 negative,” she said.
Little by little, Lisa says, she sent Glen $100 here, $110 there for items such as immigration payments and passports costs, all in an effort to get him to come to North Carolina and be with her. The most money she sent at one time, she says, was $1,500 for Glen's plane ticket home when he texted and said he was finally coming to be with her.
Lisa says their relationship came crumbling down in August when she went to the Fayetteville Regional Airport to pick him up and instead got a message saying he was being sent back to Georgia to get his passport stamped.
“I said, ‘You’re not doing this to me anymore,’” Lisa recalled. “I was done with his scam, done with everything, and he still asked me for $80.”
Now, one year after meeting Glen online, Lisa says she is struggling financially and emotionally. She says she is in debt and that the fraud has impacted her credit and bank account. She has also received threats from the man she once knew as Glen.
“Your family will help you cry soon when you are being carried inside your grave,” he texted. “Just watch your back. I have a bullet waiting to stick in your brain.”
Doctors, lawyers, CEOs being scammed
None of the victims the 5 On Your Side team spoke with ever thought it could happen to them. They said they couldn't imagine how they allowed themselves to be lured to the point that they willingly gave up tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. They all shared the convincing ways con artists romanced them, little by little over months and months.
Barb Sluppick knows the stories well. She runs RomanceScams.org, a counseling website for victims, with 20,000 members, both men and women.
“I have a couple victims that have lost a million,” Sluppick said. “We have doctors, we have lawyers, we have CEOs of companies. We have people you never dream in a million years are being scammed.”
The state Attorney General’s office says most of the scammers are from Nigeria and simply fish until they find their victim, using photos, like the one used to represent "Glen," that they steal from websites.
The same photo of "Glen" has also been used to represent “John McGregory” and “Cecil Wolfsburg” in other scams. The names keep changing, but the picture, the words and the promises used to seduce the victims stay the same.
“By the time it reaches the point where you’re sending money, you feel like you know that person,” Sluppick said.
Lisa says she felt she knew Glen, despite the red flags in their relationship. His lovey-dovey words have now been washed away by the harsh reality that Lisa will likely never get her $8,000 back.
“When I think about that stuff, I’m like, ‘You're such an idiot.’ I just tell myself, ‘God, you're such an idiot,’” Lisa said. "I wanted to run my car into the back of an 18-wheeler ... I seriously thought about suicide, I really did, but I could never do anything like that."
The 5 On Your Side team tracked down the man in the picture, whose real name is Cecil, not Glen. Cecil, who is in the Army and was stationed at Fort Bragg, says his picture was hijacked years ago and he has been dealing with the fallout ever since.
He says women call him all the time, angry about what happened to them, and he tries to explain that he was not the one texting them. He even reached out to his military commanders, who told him there's nothing they can do because the scam is so large.
Experts say scammers often shape their identities based on the information provided in potential victim profiles. After the victim recognizes that he or she has been scammed and ceases contact with the scammer, the victim may be contacted by a phony detective or private investigator offering services to track down the scammer, for a fee – in another attempt to perpetuate the scam.