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The high cost of being a fool for online love

Melinda is a 20-year-old student in Western Pennsylvania who has watched her mother suffer deeply during the past 10 years, losing her husband and her job and waging an intense battle with agoraphobia – fear of public spaces – which progressed to the point where she is essentially homebound.

Now, the 53-year-old woman's one hope of finding love later in life – the Internet – has turned against her in a cruel way. For the past year, Melinda has helplessly watched as her mom has slowly fallen for a long-distance, online lover who clearly is scamming her. Initially the man, who gave his name as Michael and said he was in Texas, played the part of desperate lover, typing sweet nothings into a chat room and pledging a happy-ever-after life – beautiful homes, cars, luxurious trips. Soon, though, he said he was sent on an emergency trip to Nigeria. Then came a curious request: Michael said he needed $500 so he could leave the country and visit the family in Pennsylvania. Melinda's mom wired the money to Africa. Then came another request, and another.  In all, Melinda thinks her mom wired nearly $10,000 to Michael, each time thinking the payment would enable her lover to visit or help him escape a dire situation. The romance has so financially drained the family that Melinda and her mom have been threatened with foreclosure. Still, Melinda said, her mom continues to wire money to Michael.

"My mother and I have been in many fights about Michael and her sending him money, but she just tells me that I do not want her to be in love or happy," she said. To this day, Melinda has been unable to find the magic words that might pierce the denial and deception her mom is suffering from. "I am just at a loss for words."

Msnbc.com has agreed to protect Melinda's identity, while Melinda has provided a detailed timeline of the year-long tale of seduction, betrayal and family frustration in the hope it may prevent others from being victimized.

As in the real world, the abused lover is often the last to know, said another online love victim, Barb Sluppick. After she fell for an online dupe, Sluppick started a support group for victims called RomanceScams.org. Today, the site has 44,000 members and has tallied more than $11 million lost by victims. 

Web lover scams cut especially deep, she said, because they are so easy to commit. The con artists are often in Nigeria, and many maintain relationships with multiple women. By the time victims find their way to RomanceScams.org, they often discover an archive of woman who have received the same photographs and story lines from their con artists.

Since Sluppick started the site five years ago, it has been featured on numerous national television shows, including "The Oprah Winfrey Show." But the exposure hasn't alleviated the problem. In fact, she believes the number of victims is continuing to rise – and their stories are becoming more dramatic. One victim Sluppick helped recently had cashed in his retirement fund and sent a con artist more than $1 million during a year-long seduction.  Another victim was so engrossed in conversation with her con artist – who continually told her to ignore pleas of family members – that she ignored her own mother's cries for help during a heart attack. She discovered her mom, dead, several hours later.

Jim Arlt is a special agent devoted to elder scams with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. He's heard ever more heart-wrenching stories.

"Here in Minnesota we had a woman who believed she had met someone online, then discovered he wasn't who he said he was, and after realizing she had given away all her money to this person, she committed suicide and left a note saying why," Arlt said.  He described the problem of elder scams, and romance scams in particular, as "growing exponentially."

"There's no focused effort to address it," he said.

Naturally, most victims are extremely reluctant to admit they've been scammed or to publicly speak about the incident, Sluppick said. She has dealt with many family members, like Melinda, who are desperate to break the illusion that controls the victim.

"It can be very, very, very difficult to get them to see what's going on. The scammer works really, really  hard to make the victim dependent on them," she said.  "It's mind control. It's brainwashing. … They create a bond that is very hard to break."

One common technique: The scammer tries to consume all of the victim's time with constant chat-room banter, with the goal of isolating the victim from their families and friends. To that end, scammers often work in teams -- four or five different scam artists will trade off sweet-talking the victim, just to keep him or her busy.

"Many times, after a victim realizes what's going on, they'll say, 'Wow, it seems like he just couldn't spell very well that day, or he seemed to talk very differently," Sluppick said.

Older, single women are a frequent target, but victims come from all ages, and the gender split is about even, Sluppick said. Women are more likely to admit they've been scammed, but older men are more likely to lose big when seduced by what appears to be a beautiful 23-year-old woman.

But one trait all the victims have in common: They are lonely and the criminals satisfy a desperate need to be listened to. In fact, the need is so great that some victims are reluctant to give up the relationship even after the mirage is broken.

That intense loneliness describes much of the trial Melinda's mom is currently enduring. Here's part of the timeline provided by Melinda, told in her own words:

May 5, 2009 -- Mom tells me about Michael. He originally approached through a randomly sent instant message.  He tells her he is in Nigeria working on a job site, but originally lives in Texas.

May 22, 2009 -- Mom is scrambling around trying to obtain $500 to send to Michael to get him home. His current boss in Nigeria did not pay him enough to get him back to the United States.  Mom comes to me and asks me for the money. I do not have it, even if I did I would not want to give it to her.

June 5, 2009 -- My mom comes to me and asks me if I have $200 to pay the heat and the water bill that is due tomorrow. I ask her, "What happened to her money that she used to "pay" the bills?" She confesses and says that she sent the money via Western Union to Michael to get him home. She says we don't need to worry too much about bills because once he gets here he will pay off all of the bills that need to be paid.

June  6, 2009 -- I give her the money to pay the bills, but we get into a confrontation about Michael and how I think that this is a scam and that he does not live in Texas. She yells and says I do not want to see her happy.

June  9, 2009 -- I wake up and get ready for work. Mom is at the computer, rocking back and forth. I take her to the hospital.  Later, we learn she had a heart attack.

June 10-12, 2009 -- Mom went through a heart catheterization and had a stent inserted. After everything seems to be okay, I tell my mom that Michael and the stress he has created is the cause for her health problems. She tells me she doesn't care to talk about it.

July - September 2009 --  Mom looks up homes that obviously we cannot afford and says that when Michael gets here he is going to buy us a house. She also says he is going to give us his Jeep when he gets back to the States. I just shrug it off, and she gets mad. An argument always comes next.

October 2009 – On a Sunday night in October, my mom has chest pains again.  I take her to the hospital and they replace her old stent with a newly medicated one. While we are there, she tells me that she can't be in the hospital because she needs to send Michael the money to get home. I was in awe.  "That should be the least of your worries," I say.

Fall 2009 -- Several times, Michael promises he is about to arrive for a visit. On the day that he is supposed to show up, mom cleans the house, gets all dressed up and gets ready for him to arrive. When he doesn't show, she chalks it up to a delay at the airport or one of several other excuses. One time, Michael says he is on his way to the airport with the money my mom sent him, but the taxi he is in is hi-jacked by gangsters who shoot the taxi driver and beat up Michael pretty bad.  Mom then sends money for medical costs.  Another time, he arrives at the airport, but the airport is on fire because it had been bombed, and he can't leave the country.

November 2009 - One day before a $400 electric bill is due, my mother tells my boyfriend and I that she does not have the money to pay it. Neither do we. Days later, the electricity is shut off and there's another argument. The same things always seem to come up. I tell her that this is a scam and that this guy is not real, and he is just using her for her money. Michael has called the house numerous times and I have answered, this man does not sound like a man from the United States. He can barely speak English and when he does, the sentences that he says are not clear. The electricity is finally turned back on because the electric company let us pay half. I paid the bill.

March 2010 - I come  home from work and my mom says that the Sheriff stopped by and gave her a paper stating our home was in foreclosure. I say, "I thought you were paying the loan payments." She offers no explanation.

April 5, 2010 - My mom is having chest pains again, so I take her to the hospital. They run more tests. While we are waiting for the results, she says to me that she hopes she does not have to stay because she needs to get home to get money out of the bank for Michael. She was going to have her friend take out the money and send it to him, but the bank won't allow it.

April  2010 - My mom is on Facebook.  She decides to look up Michael, and she finds him. She notices a woman from the United Kingdom on his Friends list and sends her a message. The woman informs my mother that she was trying to help Michael get to her from Nigeria and was also promising her things.  I tell my mom that this is little weird, and she agrees. But then she talks to Michael, he explains that it was all al lie, and she believes him.

May 2010 - More money is sent. And there's another sad story from Michael about how someone stole it, and he needs more.

May 19, 2010 - My boyfriend texts me and says, "Your mom just asked for $500 to save the house."  I am furious. She says that If we don't get the money into the loan company by May 20, the house be sold at foreclosure.

May 20, 2010 - Before leaving for work, I stop in my mom's room.  She is rocking back and forth again, which makes me nervous, because I thought she was having chest pains.  She said she wasn't. Instead, we get into yet another argument about Michael, utilities, and loan payments. I tell her I want her to tell me the truth – Is she still sending him money?  She claims she is not, but I have now read some of her e-mails and know she is. My mom doesn't seem too worried about the house.  I tell her she should start looking for an apartment, someplace to go when we are kicked out of the home. She says that the house won't go that fast, and we will be able to live here for a while. She still expects Michael to save us.

June 5, 2010 – I find an e-mail my mom sent to Michael asking what was going on, and why he hasn't gotten in touch with her. He claims yet again that bandits stole the money from him. She tells him she is upset, that this is a "nightmare," and that the electricity will soon be shut off.

June 7, 2010 - My mom calls me at work to say that the power has been shut off.

June 14, 2010 - My grandma helped her pay the bill and today, the electricity is back on.

June 22, 2010 – Mom says she has received a letter from the lender saying it wanted to work out a new payment plan for the house.  I do not actually see this letter, I don't know if this is true.

In early July, at the advice of msnbc.com, Melinda joined RomanceScams.org and found a picture of Michael that had been posted by other victims. The photograph has been used to scam several people. In fact, there is an entire page of stories from woman seduced by con artists using the photographs shared with Melinda's mom. Melinda printed out the pages and shared them with her mom, who finally realized that Michael is a fraud. Still, Melinda thinks her mom continues to correspond with him. And she's unsure of the status of foreclosure proceedings against the home.

RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS

There are hundreds of flavors of elder scams – lottery scams, investment scams and romance scams chief among them. It's important for adult children to recognize the signs of a scam and to take action  -- even  if that means temporary anger from the parents. One dramatic solution to Melinda's problem would be for her to seek power of attorney over her mom's financial affairs.

That's no small task, however, says personal finance columnist Liz Weston.

"Just being a fool typically isn't enough to warrant a conservatorship. You have to prove she's either incompetent or that she's under the undue influence of another," said Weston, author of several books, including "The 10 Commandments of Money." "It's not impossible but you would definitely want to sit down with a competent attorney who's done many of these cases already."

Sometimes, it's possible to help victims face facts, Sluppick said.  Showing the victim a picture of his or her lover being used online in other scams sometimes does the trick, but not always. 

"Often, the con man will then just say, 'Oh my, someone has stolen my identity,' and victims believe it," she said.

Fighting with other facts can work. Many scams start with the con man saying he is in Texas, and only later telling a potential victim that he has been transferred to Nigeria or London.  But an examination of the headers in the initial e-mail can show that the communication came from Nigeria all along.

But rarely will direct confrontation work. Instead, a gentle but consistent prodding is the best way to 'tip' a victim, Sluppick said.  Persuading a victim to read through hundreds of stories on RomanceScams.org at their own pace is the best antidote, she thinks.

Arlt says adult children must everything they can to avoid preaching to parents.

"The toughest thing to do is to avoid talking down to them, because if you do, the first thing they will do is get mad, and that will start shutting the door," he said. "You need to just to talk and ask them questions, not just make blanket statements, and with romantic scams you have to be especially gentle because deep feelings are involved. (Many family members think) their parent is on the road to being hurt,  and they think if they slap them upside the head, it will snap them out of it. That doesn't work."

After a victim has been tipped, and they stop communicating with a con artist, there is often a huge void. Friends and family must now fill the void created by the missing hours and hours of chat room talk. 

"That's why the boards on RomanceScams are so busy," she said. "People are trying to fill the hours they spent talking with their scammers with something."

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