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How To Avoid Falling Prey To Romance Scams, Like One That Saw A 72-Year-Old Widow Fleeced Of $300K
Cybersecurity pro Christopher Salgado explained just how to avoid becoming a victim of romance scams at a CrimeCon 2022 panel in Las Vegas.
A romance scam in which a 72-year-old widow was gradually fleeced of upwards of $300,000 by a man posing as a new love interest who was hospitalized in Scotland was central to a CrimeCon 2022 panel, in which a cybersecurity pro explained how to avoid becoming a victim of such a crime.
Christopher Salgado, a former Facebook security staffer and current CEO of All Points Investigations, which probes online scams, discussed the scourge of romance scams on Sunday afternoon from a Las Vegas stage at Crimecon 2022. Romance scams, he said, begin with social engineering—or deception through manipulation of natural human behavior to target and persuade a person to divulge confidential or personal information, then using that gleaned information to defraud him or her.
“The scary thing is, anyone can conduct social engineering to their own benefit,” Salgado told the CrimeCon crowd.
“Simply put, [romance scammers are] masters of disguise,” he added. “They're not the people that they say they are —they're a cog in a highly sophisticated, elusive international scheme. And many of them are young actors scattered across the globe, engaged in what they identify as a real job trying to get legitimate money through illegitimate means.”
The case of the septuagenarian widower that the cybersecurity expert and author launched into for the majority of his one-man talk is particularly egregious and heartbreaking. Within two weeks of her husband’s death, the victim, who Salgado did not name but had received permission to speak about, was contacted online by her phony love interest — partially via Facebook, according to Salgado. The scam artist said he was an oil rig worker from New Jersey and currently bedridden in a private hospital in Scotland, waiting to undergo an $80,000 heart surgery.
After the victim sent him that first $80,000, the fleecing tactics got wild, with the man asking her to place cash inside hollowed-out books and mail them to multiple people across the U.S., followed by claims that his employees were going to kill him if he couldn’t make payroll. The worst may have been a scam where the woman was scared into mailing $5,000 after receiving a call from a fake FBI agent, who said they’d been monitoring her calls with her online boyfriend—who they told her was scamming her— and that she’d have arresting agents at her door within minutes if she didn’t immediately get funds to them.
When the widow later told her online beau what happened, the scammer had the gall to inform her she was a scam victim and the feds who’d called her were not real. What ended in embarrassment and heartbreak for the widower was, in fact, part of a massive operation involving money mills around the country, Salgado said.
“This was a huge investigation. We uncovered an enormous operation overseas,” he told the audience. “We investigated the money mills, found out all these people were scattered throughout the United States accepting these cash contributions from her.”
According to a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission, in 2021 Americans lost about $550 million to romance scammers — an 8% increase from 2020. Since 2017, $1.3 billion has been rinsed by scammers from unfortunate victims seeking to meet someone online.
The widower, Salgado said, was left with the bare minimum to survive. Two weeks after the scam was revealed, he added, she was again communicating with her scammer online — which reveals a bit about the manipulative power these criminals can hold over their victims.
Avoiding becoming involved in a romance scam is possible, Salgado added. Vigilance around suspicious messages, reverse image searching of the photos of online romantic interests, slowing the pace of a budding online romance (if it feels too fast), and staying within official app stores, i.e.not going off-app store to download programs onto your computer or phone are just some of the ways to stay safe. But these scams always evolve and there may not be a way to ensure protection against romance scams and social engineering.
“There's no prevention of any one thing out there, even if it's social engineering,” Salgado said as he closed his panel with advice. “Make sure you stay updated on romance scams and make sure that you have an online threat assessment done on yourself to see how exposed you are.”
CrimeCon 2022 is produced by Red Seat Ventures and presented by Oxygen.