Seventy-three-year-old Lydia of Vancouver had been widowed for eight years when she decided to join free online dating website PlentyOfFish.com in spring 2010 to look for love.
"I was feeling it was time to move on," Lydia said. "I didn't want to be alone anymore."
She threw back a few catches before meeting a man who piqued her interest. Carl said he was a 66-year-old Swedish-American who had grown up in California and was working overseas as an oil procurer.
Romance scam red flags
• A thick accent. An accent doesn’t mean he or she is a swindler, said Ann Flaherty of ElderAngels Inc. But romance scams often are committed abroad by well-organized rings, she said. Operating from abroad increases the difficulty of prosecution.
• Quickly asking to leave the dating website in favor of email. The dating website could provide information to law enforcement that would be harder to obtain from a personal email account, Flaherty said. Perpetrators usually use fake names and email accounts registered under fake names, she said.
• The relationship progresses quickly. It seems too good to be true.
• Requests for secrecy. A fraudster may try the line that “No one is going to believe we have this wonderful love,” Flaherty said. Secrecy perpetuates the victim’s gullibility, because there won’t be family and friends pointing out that something’s amiss, she said.
• They ask for money to be wired.
"He knew exactly what to say, how to say it, how to appeal to what I'd said was essential to my life," Lydia said.
Things were going well until Carl ran into a series of sticky situations while working abroad.
One time, he said his client couldn't pay him because the client couldn't send money internationally. He asked Lydia for a stopgap loan until he could collect his pay, Lydia said. She was happy to help because of the trust and connection between them, and she wired him some money.
Later, he called from a hospital and told Lydia he didn't have the money to pay his bill because he still hadn't been paid. Another man who said he was Carl's doctor got on the phone, explaining Carl's medical procedures.
The requests and the money wires kept adding up.
Six months later, Lydia had sent Carl more than $100,000, and it became clear she wasn't going to get it back. Carl was actually a Nigerian living in London and had taken on the identity of a real man in California.
"I had no idea there were so many scoundrels out there who would tap into where someone had a weak spot," Lydia said.
The desire for love can be so overpowering that an otherwise sane person may believe the unbelievable for a promise of it. Lydia, who asked that her real name not be revealed, is far from being alone in being deceived by well-rehearsed stories meant to manipulate a victim's emotions so she will open her wallet.
Millions lost in the name of love
Nationwide, romance scams bilked victims out of $50.4 million in 2011, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center.
"Romance scams play on people's goodwill," said Michael Rabby, a social media expert at Washington State University Vancouver. "People have the desire to help others, connect to others, love others. These scams play into these needs we all have."
Romance scams represent about 5,663, or 1.8 percent, of the 314,246 Internet crimes reported in 2011 throughout the nation.
One-hundred-forty of those complaints came from Washington and equaled a total loss of $1.8 million, said Jenny Shearer, an FBI spokeswoman.
Few cases are investigated due to the overwhelming number of complaints, Shearer said. The cases the FBI takes up usually involve multiple victims or damages that exceed $1 million, explained Ann Flaherty, executive director and private investigator with California-based nonprofit ElderAngels Inc. Flaherty investigated Lydia's case for free to try to garner enough evidence for the FBI to pick up the case. So far, she has been unsuccessful.
The lack of crackdown on smaller-scale fraudsters is why prevention is so important, Flaherty said.
Lydia's painful lessons
Lydia's case exhibits some classic warning signs of romance scams.
"As a rule, at the point when someone wants money, that is the point when you leave," said Rabby of WSU Vancouver. "It sounds cynical, but there is almost no good that can come from it."
Carl asked for money to be delivered through Western Union and MoneyGram, which is nearly impossible to trace, Flaherty said.
The relationship with Carl moved rapidly, a sign of a possible scam, Flaherty said.
"If it's too good to be true, it probably is," Rabby said.
When Lydia finally accepted the truth, she reported the case to the FBI and contacted ElderAngels. Flaherty tried to locate Carl, which is not the fraudster's real name, by tracing emails and linking up phone numbers, but she wasn't able to unmask him. She also tried to find more victims who could help the case reach the FBI's threshold for investigation.
"If someone is lonely and isolated, they're going to become more vulnerable to a story of romance and potential connection because there is a such a need for that," said Dr. Will Meek, lead psychologist at Counseling & Testing Services at Washington State University Vancouver.
Seniors, like Lydia, are particularly vulnerable to all types of fraud, including romance scams, Meek said. They're attractive victims because they typically have more money than younger people, according to the Pew Research Center. They also have a disproportionate loss of cognitive function in the part of the brain that processes doubt, increasing their gullibility, according to a 2012 study by the University of Iowa College of Medicine. And older people come from a generation that values trusting others, Meek added.
But they're not the most likely to be the victim of a romance scam.
About 13 percent of romance scam complaints come from people 60 and older, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. The vast majority of victims are women ages 40 to 59. That age group generated 68 percent of all complaints by women.
More than twice as many women as men reported being victims of romance scams in 2011, and women lost about four times as much money as men, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Nearly 69 percent of complaints came from women, compared with 31 percent from men.
There are fewer single men than single women in that age bracket, according to the Census Bureau, and men are more likely to date younger women, further depleting the supply of single men in the 40-59 age range.
Rabby of WSU Vancouver said that's one possibility. Another reason may be that in the 40-59 age range, men tend to be more tech-savvy than women. That difference faded away in younger groups as technology became more ubiquitous, but the knowledge gap among women in that age range could make them more vulnerable in online settings, Rabby said.
"I'd also guess that women new to the dating scene are more vulnerable," said Brenda Alling, a WSU Vancouver spokeswoman. "They haven't dated in 20 years (because many have had children at home), and they think they won't get anyone because their ex-husbands are dating 35-year-olds, or worse. Inexperience and desperation are never a great combination for putting common sense first."
Fortunately for Lydia, her disastrous encounter with a fraudster during online dating didn't embitter her toward the medium. She's now engaged to a Portlander she met online.
"There really are many good people who sign up on dating websites, but there are equal number of fraudsters," Lydia said. "I had no clue. I just went in blind. I had no idea people could do this to other people."