Area Agency on Aging: Romance scams increase during pandemic


By Kay Kaylor

PREVIEW Columnist

I advocate for residents in extended care and assisted living residences as the region’s lead long-term care ombudsman. I also am a Senior Medicare Patrol and State Health Insurance Assistance Program counselor, all as an employee of San Juan Basin Area Agency on Aging (SJBAAA). Information on the many aging and care concerns will be included here. 

New websites by con artists are proliferating during the pandemic, and scams have tripled. Organizations such as AARP continue to educate the public and report on scam techniques. AARP’s The Perfect Scam podcasts, with investigative journalist Michelle Kosinski and fraud expert Frank Abagnale as hosts, feature dozens of interviews of scam victims, experts and con artists and average 25 minutes. The podcasts are found on the website, and a subscription is available on several online streaming services.

Romance scammers continue to entice vulnerable people who have experienced divorce, death or other traumas. Dr. Justin Lehmiller, social psychologist, said in one AARP podcast that the predators prey on people’s deep insecurities. 

We all need to belong, he noted, and after weeks or months of frequent contact with the love interest, the victims’ passion and feelings lead them to act irrationally and ignore their own doubts and warnings from friends and family. The biological and emotional connection of the romantic relationship over time helps create blinders.

Abagnale explained how scammers use social engineering skills, researching on the Internet everything they can find, such as social media posts, about a target’s interests and attitudes, to develop emotional intimacy with the person. They know the human desire to be loved and understood, so they talk for hours, send flowers, and share poetry and photos. 

According to hacking expert Rachel Tobac, who tests the security of businesses, con artists often work for others and have access to voice-changing software that can alter the gender and accents of the speaker.

 Several of the scammed professional and experienced women in the AARP podcasts tried dating websites at the urging of friends. After weeks or months of online “dating” and then sending money for convincing reasons to a “friend” of the con artist, the women realized their love interest was not who he seemed. A consistent clue in a romance scam is that the person from the dating site will not use live video even when asked repeatedly. 

In one long-term romance, the man eventually confessed, and she discovered on video that he was a younger man from Nigeria and not at all the British businessman who had courted her; he tried to continue the relationship. She was a former intelligence officer and trained to be suspicious, but despite some concerns and research on his information, she lost more than $1 million. For example, the skilled con artist even had her chat with different family members and a lawyer with convincing separate personalities.

In three of the stories, the scammer has a romantic accent (but not his own) and, at some point, travels overseas and gets “in trouble.” Then he asks for loans or donations to a fake charity using Western Union, Google Play cards, the victim’s own bank accounts or an account set up to help him. When the couple makes plans to meet, something always prevents it, and often the scammer asks the partner not to tell others. Legitimate-sounding excuses start to pile up in the relationship. 

If you are using a dating website, slow down, insist on a live video within a couple weeks, tell others details and do not blame yourself for joining the numerous people who have been tricked by these experienced con artists. For advice, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Hotline, (977) 908-3360. 

SJBAAA offers resources for people age 60 and older or on Medicare. For further information, please call or text 403-2165 or send an email to