Romance scams are a growing problem in Alabama

Romance scams are a growing problem in Alabama
Some online romance fraud victims can face fines, criminal charges, and jail time

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) – What would you do for love? If it’s true love, your answer might be ‘anything.’

For a woman in Birmingham, she was willing to give tens-of-thousands of dollars to the man she loved but never met.

She found out just in time she was being scammed.

“It is rare to find someone who just is completely normal and who doesn’t seem to have a huge amount of baggage,” said a woman we are calling Beth. She asked not to be identified but her story is one thousands of Alabamians can relate to.

“Everybody does have some [baggage] but somebody that is actually ready for a relationship,” said Beth.

She thought she found that person in a man who called himself Charles. Beth met him on a dating website and within a few weeks, they were talking every day.

Phone calls, emails, text messages but no meetings.

Beth admits she knew that was a classic red flag of a scam, but even still, she wasn’t overly suspicious. Charles explained he was working out of town and when they first connected, he was up front about a possible job opportunity in Alaska.

He told her he would be gone for a few weeks but then he’d be back in Birmingham.

“I can do a few weeks,” said Beth.

The weeks stretched and their relationship, and as Beth believed, their trust grew deeper. So much so, that when Charles got the job he’d been hoping for, he turned to Beth to help with something she’d only trust family to do.

“He suggested I make this [bank] transfer for him because he couldn’t get it to work because of internet issues,” said Beth.

She added, “I assumed there was a lot of trust because he had to give me his password and his login and he had to be on the phone with me when it happened because of the way it was all set up.”

While on the phone, Beth logged into Charles’ bank account and successfully made the transfer to a steel company overseas. He called back a few days later to ask her to make a second transfer. This time the money was to go to a shipping company and this time, the transfer didn’t work.

“When he came back and told me he had received an email from his bank account that it was frozen, I didn’t think that much of it at first because I didn’t realize the extent of what he said that meant,” said Beth.

Beth said Charles was told he would have to go to his bank, which was in France, to unlock his account. He couldn’t do it, he told her, and without the money to the shipping company, the supplies he needed to complete the job in Alaska wouldn’t be sent.

Beth felt guilty and offered to get a joint loan from her bank.

“I thought, well I’m covering myself to have his name on it so it wasn’t just me, and of course when I went to my bank to try to do this, my bank told me that he would have to be there in person,” explained Beth.

She ended up getting a personal loan for $24,000 and when she told Charles, she was less than impressed with his reaction.

“Didn’t really hear from him much over the next two days and, being a woman, I was just saying you know, well, if he’s not going to contact me after I have gotten this for him, then I am not going to send it,” said Beth.

Her reaction, her need to be appreciated, wasn’t an emotion she says this scammer expected.

“I think he believed I would send it immediately that evening once I got home from work and I just didn’t, luckily.”

Instead, Beth went to work, looking back at old emails, checking the bank’s and shipping company’s websites and started to notice some things that could not be explained.

“The bank website was only created a couple months ago which was very suspicious for something that supposedly had been around 100 years,” said Beth.

“Then I saw that was made by a free domain account which I thought was a bit odd.”

“I was, the whole time, trying to prove that it was not a scam… but that’s not what I found. And the more I found, the more it started to sink into my brain that none of it was real,” said Beth.

She never sent any money and stopped responding to Charles’ calls and emails. She turned over everything she had to the FDIC and the FBI.

“I have to make sure other people know because it’s not right,” said Beth.

“It absolutely is a problem. We are seeing a rise in it,” said Supervisory Special Agent Scott Pierre, Cybercrimes Squad, FBI Birmingham.

Romance scams are a growing problem in Alabama. According to annual reports from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, 235 people in Alabama reported they were victims of a romance scam in 2018.

The financial loss was more than $1.7 million.

Nationwide, more than 18,000 people reported losing a collective $362 million to romance scams.

“If you knew you could steal $1 million, $2 million from a person, then they have no problem spending 6 months, 8 months, 2 years pretending you are in love with a person,” said Supervisory Special Agent Pierre.

“In almost every instance that we see, there is some story. It’s going to be the person’s sick, they’re in jail, they have a sick relative, there is always some sense of urgency and really a fantastical story that gets you to believe, ‘I need to send this person a significant amount of money and I need to do it right now.’ Those should be immediate red flags. If it’s not something you’d do face to face, then it’s definitely not something you should do online.”

Supervisory Special Agent Pierre says scammers are getting smarter and conscious of some of the indicators that made them obvious in the past.

“In a lot of cases, the English isn’t very well written in the messages that are being sent back and forth. Don’t think though, if you do speak to someone that has very good English that it’s not a fraud.”

He warns scammers are hiring people to communicate with victims.

“There may be some infrastructure elements, some money mule type elements that are located in the United States but the overwhelming majority of the perpetrators are outside the United States,” said Special Agent Pierre.

“There are people sitting all across the world that this is their job,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter what we do today to try to stop them… tomorrow they are coming back and they are going to get more creative, find out what we’ve put in place to stop them, and find a way around it. This is not a problem that is going away.”

To avoid becoming a victim of a romance scam, the FBI recommends:

Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere.

Go slow and ask lots of questions.

Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or Facebook to go “offline.”

Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.

Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.

Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally.

If you’ve been the victim of a scam, you can report it to IC3 by clicking this link.

Below, you can watch more of that interview with Supervisory Special Agent Scott Pierre, Cybercrimes Squad, FBI Birmingham.

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