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An elderly Oregon man got "catfished" — quite literally.
The 80-year-old widower sent approximately $200,000 over the course of several months to a scammer who pressured the senior citizen into investing in an enormous marble carving of a cat, more specifically a lion, authorities said.
The man, who had recently lost his wife, according to officials, was convinced he was in a long-distance romantic relationship, and believed he was bankrolling the shipping costs for massive lion sculpture from China to an art gallery in Florida. The con artist claimed to be recruiting a number of investors to cover the full transportation cost to ship the art — a staggering total of $5 million. Officials, who detected the scam last year, suspect the elderly victim had been entrapped in the scheme since at least 2018.
The scammer fabricated documents that detailed a supposed museum contract, along with matching bank statements, and even sent the man a photo of the purported lion statue. Over the course of five months, the victim sent several payments exceeding $200,000 to the mystery crook, authorities said.
"The scammer provided photos to the widower of a lion statue and made him believe that it was a 500-ton marble statue that would be shipped from China to the U.S. at a cost of $5 million," Brad Hilliard, a spokesperson for the Oregon Division of Financial Regulation, told Oxygen.com.
Authorities said the $200,000 that the 80-year-old lost was a “good chunk” of his life savings, a sum that likely will never be recovered.
“This gentleman, I’m sure, worked very hard all of his life. To see that gone now is something that nobody should have to deal with,” Hilliard said.
Officials said the lion sculpture in the scammer’s snapshot is real, but that the gigantic cat was carved out of wood, not marble. The hulking sculpture, which measures over 4 meters high and weighs nearly 40 tons, took nearly three years to complete, and is supposedly the world’s largest mahogany sculpture of its kind, according to China News Service, a state-run news organization.
The leonine artwork is located in Wuhan — the current ground zero of the growing coronavirus outbreak — and was reportedly carved several years ago.
After realizing he had been swindled, the unidentified victim was “pretty distraught” and “confused,” Hilliard said.
“He’s really still trying to comprehend exactly what happened and how it happened,” the spokesperson added.
There are no suspects in the case, nor do authorities have the slightest clue where the scam originated.
“We have not been able to identify who the ultimate culprit is behind this, because they were using a stolen ID out of Florida," Hilliard explained. "They were having the money sent to overseas bank accounts, so it’s very difficult to track this and figure out where the ultimate source is coming from.”
Hilliard said the man’s age made him a prime target, but noted he was particularly vulnerable to the scam after losing his wife.
“You have a widower who is, quite frankly, lonely, and is looking for some interaction.”
Each year, Americans — and particularly those in their twilight years — are defrauded of hundreds of millions of dollars in online romance scams, according to the FBI. And that number appears to be growing. In 2016, for example, roughly 15,000 online romance scams were reported. Victims that year lost approximately $230 million in total. Last year, though, nearly 20,000 romance scams were recorded by the FBI, with total losses exceeding $475 million, according to the FBI’s 2019 Internet Crime Report.
Other experts also agreed that elderly people are prime targets for online dating scams.
“Senior citizens or the geriatric community are always targets because it’s the time in their life when they’re the most lonely. A lot of them have lost their spouses, some have even lost children, and they find themselves reaching out to other people who will listen, because a lot of their family and friends have passed, too,” Kathy Waters, a romance scam victim advocate, told Oxygen.com.
“When they get somebody that pays attention to them and seems to be very interested and gives them their time and their words, it’s like hook, line, and sinker,” Waters explained. “They don’t see it coming. A lot of them are still very trusting, not understanding just how dark the web can be.”
Many online romance scams are known to originate in different regions of Western Africa, Waters said, and often involve scammers posing as deployed military servicemen or overseas oil riggers. Sometimes, the profits of such scams are even diverted to extremist groups in the region like Boko Haram.
Hilliard, the Oregon Division of Financial Regulation official, explained that while this particular case was closed in 2019, it’s a heartbreaking example of the havoc online romance scams can wreak. He said his agency chose to publicize its investigation ahead of Valentine’s Day this year as a warning to other twitterpated internet daters, as well as friends and family members of the elderly, who may be searching for love on the web.
“You don’t want to go through that, especially when you’re in the time of your life that you should be relaxing and enjoying the fruits of your labor,” Hilliard said.
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