For crying out loud, Jon Louis was even teaching a class on fraud when he got taken in — hook, line and sinker — by the dreaded internet species known as catfish.
Looking back a year or so later the scam is obvious to him, but oh my, how joyful it was to feel his heart flutter again.
“It felt so good to have this beautiful young lady in love with me and wanting to be with me that my heart got in front of my brain,” said Louis, an 82-year-old former Seattleite who now lives in Spokane.
Even though he had doubts when the person asked for money, he told himself: “If I was dating, it would cost me more than $2,500. It seemed like a reasonable investment in a long-term relationship.”
Louis is among hundreds of Washington residents who admit to having been taken in by a catfish, a scammer who creates a fake online profile to lure victims on social-media and dating sites, feigning romantic interest to earn trust before asking for money and/or valuable personal information. In 2019, Washington state had the sixth greatest number of victims of what the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center classifies as “confidence fraud / romance” scams.
Americans lose more money to romance scams than to any other type of consumer fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Victims are commonly between the ages of 40 and 69, but those over 70 lose the greatest amount of money to the cons, the FTC reports.
Those numbers may be lower than reality because they don’t include people who didn’t lose money or those too embarrassed to report the crime.
“Romance scams can bring about some of the most devastating victimizations,” said Jason Erskine of AARP Washington, which has launched numerous education campaigns on the topic. “Not only can some victims lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the emotional toll can have long-lasting and ruinous consequences. The bottom line, whether you’re starting a new relationship in person or online — especially when it’s online: Take it slowly and stay skeptical until you know you’re not being targeted by a crook. Be sure to protect your heart — and your money.”
Even the skeptical among us can, like Louis, let our eyes get too starry to see straight. It’s just science, really.
“Getting a match or having someone like you is a huge hit of happy neurochemicals,” said Fremont psychotherapist Caleb Dodson.
And professional scammers know how to make those chemicals flow. Phrases like “Hello, angel,” “I love you for you,” and “You already make me feel like the luckiest man on Earth” dot a script of copy-and-paste messages cited as evidence in the trial of Olayinka Sunmola, a Nigerian romance scammer who in 2017 was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison for defrauding and extorting hundreds of American women.
Around Valentine’s Day, when single people are compelled to confront the fact of their own loneliness, would-be hoaxers may smell fresh meat.
And loneliness “has reached an all-time high,” according to the American Psychological Association, citing a 2018 national survey by Cigna in which nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults reported they sometimes or always feel alone.
“In a nutshell, people are lonely and loneliness hurts,” said Seattle psychologist Meg Van Deusen, author of “Stressed in the U.S. Twelve Tools to Tackle Anxiety, Loneliness, Tech Addiction and More.” “We live in a high-tech city where people communicate primarily through social media and tech devices and are less confident at navigating in-person intimacy. It’s almost weird to call someone.”
As long as social isolation exists, some measure of danger will be there, Dodson and Van Deusen say.
Social-media pressures can lead people to seek fulfillment from external sources rather than internal ones, a self-defeating strategy, Van Deusen said. “Loneliness researchers have found one of the best things you can do when feeling lonely is to be able to sit with yourself in a supportive way, but we have a harder time doing that because of the external focus.”
Ultimately, people need to feel “cared about, seen and valued,” she said.
Catfish know this and exploit it.
It starts with a friend request, or a match on a dating site or app. The fraudster, who comes off as “good-looking, smart, funny and personable,” claims to be an American who lives in another country on business or a military deployment, according to the AARP. The kind stranger seems smitten, even in love, and eager to start a committed relationship. Then, almost always, they suggest you move your conversation to a private channel such as email or a chat app.
“Over weeks or months, you feel yourself growing closer. You make plans to meet in person, but for your new love, something always comes up,” the AARP explains. “Then you get an urgent request. There’s an emergency (a medical problem, perhaps, or a business crisis), and your online companion needs you to wire money quickly. He or she will promise to pay it back, but that will never happen. Instead, the scammer will keep asking for more until you finally realize you’ve been had.”
Louis, the Spokane widower who got catfished last year, said he met his pretend paramour through a Facebook friend request from someone who claimed to be a 37-year-old female Army sergeant working in Yemen.
“I should have known better, but she was just so cute,” he said.
When he asked her why she would want to be with a man in his 80s, she told him integrity, loyalty and honesty were more important than age.
“I had no training in that area of relationship scams and the person I was dealing with was excellent at getting to my heart,” he said.
Louis’ new friend convinced him she wanted to visit him in Spokane but first needed $5,500 for an “emergency leave” from the United Nations to get out of Yemen.
“The communication was so honest and heartfelt, that I fell for it,” he said.
When he went to his credit union, a sharp employee recognized the signs and told him she wouldn’t be part of it. Even after that, though, it took Louis a little time to back up.
When he wrote to the woman he thought he loved and explained the situation, “she wrote back like a man who had lost their temper, saying, ‘Who do you trust more? Me or the bank people?’ The grieving after was a combination of disappointment, frustration and sadness.”
There are ways to prevent falling victim to this predatory behavior.
In the short term, just be wary of people who seem too good to be true online or who fall in love quickly for reasons that don’t seem all that legitimate when examined dispassionately.
The longer-term solution — and Dodson warns it’s not a simple fix — is to address your deeper feelings of loneliness.
Louis said that, while he’s not glad he got hoodwinked, it’s given him an awesome teaching tool to use in his AARP-sponsored fraud classes, to which he’s added a unit on romance scams.
When he asks who has been the victim of a romance scam, a few hands go up gingerly and he’s able to say, without judgment, “You’re not the only one. Now, here’s what to be careful of going forward.”