A 79yr old woman sits with her computer.
Its late at night, and dark outside, she turns on the kettle to make herself a cup of tea to warm herself while she waits.
She’s waiting for a message to come through from her new male friend on her facebook messenger.
Her friend lives on the other side of the world, they have never met but he has sent pics of himself.
Much younger than her, he’s a divorcee, god fearing man looking for the woman who will complete him.
He liked her profile pic, her posts on scripture and he wants to get to know her better.
Its a scam, but she doesn’t know this.
The 79yr old great grandmother has returned in kind, telling the man she feels she knows but has never met all about her, her life, her health, her dreams, her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
He’s enthralled, he tells her so, says he would love to meet her one day, but money is tight despite the fact he has a good paying high profile job.
She responds by asking if he needs money, she doesn’t have a lot but she can get some, he says no, just to pray for him.
She smiles, her and God have talked to each other about this man, and God has told her to trust him….so she does.
Meanwhile, a 65yr old woman is sitting at her computer at her kitchen table, also talking to a man she has never met.
She has been talking to the man for 3yrs now.
He has 2 children and is a widow.
They’ve shared EVERYTHING.
He’s a very busy businessman but was looking to meet a genuine woman when he first messaged on facebook.
A woman who would like him for him, not for his business and what she could gain from him is how he had first introduced himself.
They’ve now moved to Whatsapp to talk.
A couple of times she had helped him out, she says, he had been overseas when his children back home were left stranded, he couldn’t get any cash to them, bank transfers meant long clearance times and he couldn’t access his online accounts in the country he is in.
In fact, she says that’s why they moved to Whatsapp, because he travels so much and ‘Facebook isn’t available in some countries’.
Neither woman has told their children, or grandchildren about their “friends”, they’ve been scammed before and it hurt.
The fear of being exposed again, would be as the 65yr old woman said, “very embarrassing, my kids will think I’m stupid, they don’t understand”.
Both women insist they are not being scammed again.
The 79yr old says he has never asked for money so he’s not a scammer, the 65yr says she hasn’t sent a lot of money and their relationship has been going for 3yrs now and no-one could hold up a charade for that long.
But like all too good to be true stories, the inevitable happens
Problem is they both are scammed and are talking to the same person… a woman in her late 20s posing as a man targeting the elderly to help fund a ring of cyber political trolls.
But when confronted with the news and supporting evidence that the person they are talking to is not real, the women ignored it, saying it wasn’t proof.
One told me that it didn’t make sense because “God had talked to her about this man” and after a while of thinking it over she says she is going to confront him and tell him all the inconsistencies in his story and present him with the evidence she now has to prove it isn’t him.
She does… but first she goes into her one bedroom house, closes the door to her room and cries.
Hearing a 79yr old’s heartbreak into a million tiny pieces, is pretty devastating.
I decided not to share the news that the “man” she was actually talking to was a woman, or of the other women the online professional impersonator was also liaising with.
She was broken enough, and I broke for her.
I broke for her not just because she was 79yrs old and she thought she had found love, I broke for her not just because she was embarrassed that ‘it had happened again’,
I broke because this was my Grandmother and she was hurt.
She was lonely and wanted company and neither her grandchildren, great grandkids or even her own children could fill the void.
But a scammer did and she exploited my grandmother’s kindness and used her vulnerabilities to get what she needed from her.
To the scammer, that was unquestioning loyalty and funds.
I thought that would be the end of it, having provided the evidence and asking family members to help check up on her.
But it wasn’t, less than 5 months later, my grandmother had been hit again by another scammer….or possibly the same one.
Denial and secrecy by the victim are a scam artists tools
This time she refused to tell anyone.
I had a sneaky suspicion she was repeating the past and I asked my nana if she was talking to another mystery man.
My Nana who makes the best food and can outcook any chef, who like a good god fearing woman can outpray any pastor, the woman whose talents are many and crazy intelligence was underestimated because she was a woman, a Maori and refused to conform to societal expectations of how a woman should behave responded
“I get tired of all the loneliness and I enjoy my chats ok”.
But just like the other times I had confronted her she was defiant, she knew that this current one wasn’t a real person, she justified it, passionately.
“its just money,” she said. “Im not going to give up my friend…I’ve talked with him on the phone, so it is a man”
She had been to the hospital and he checked in on her every 5-10mins no-one apparently had ever done that for her.
She wants to indulge the fantasy, and she was willing to pay for it by sending this new scammer money.
And that’s what I want to highlight.
It’s easy to scam the lonely even easier when they are old and lonely and don’t have as much interaction in the real world as they used to when they were younger.
It’s worse when they are willing.
So what is the harm of an old person indulging in a fantasy?
People pay for prostitutes all the time for a fantasy whats the difference?
Well, it’s not harmless, and its not two consenting adults mutually benefiting from a relationship.
We’ve all been in love, and if you will, just think of all the crazy shit you have done for love.
Now imagine how a retired person with resources and unlimited time could do.
And yes while its money and they can do what they want with it, the reality is the elderly person is deluding themselves and willingly funding political, religious and even drug cartels that help fund sex trafficking, pedophilia, civil wars, and drugs.
That elderly person (or in this case my nana) is a part of a multi-billion dollar industry that actually helps the ‘bad guys’.
In 2011 the UK alone estimated fraud scams to be worth $38billion per year.
The elderly people being scammed is a very real and very big problem.
So huge is the problem that researchers have been dissecting the romance scam revealing that many of the tactics used are similar to that of human trafficking and online child pornography and the grooming stages can take months of months of work.
And as most people are either too embarrassed to come forward or (like my Nana) just simply refuses to believe they are being lied too, the wheels of the romance scam keep turning and develop further.
Antony de Malmanche was a Wanganui NZ, 53yr old man who is 3years into serving a 15yr prison sentence in Indonesia for drug trafficking.
He was fortunate it wasn’t the death penalty.
Antony flew to Bali with a woman he had been chatting online to a “Jessy Smith” and received an invitation for a full expenses paid trip.
After meeting men he believed were Jessy’s staff in China, he was flown from Hong Kong to Bali, where airport customs found the drugs in his backpack.
He was lonely and as far as he was concerned the relationship had developed so far he had no reason to question its authenticity
Despite more than 450 pages of internet transcript showing he’d been duped into a fake romance, he was incarcerated, you can follow the family’s plight here.
Jessy wasn’t real, she was a fictitious US character developed by drug traffickers, and this story isn’t unique.
Sharon Armstrong a former deputy of a Maori Language Commission also endured the same fate but this time in an Argentian prison after she fell for a fake romance that involved messages, phone calls and ‘paid’ trips.
She was asked to pick up a million dollar contract that her and her online romance could work together on.
He said the suitcase would be dropped off to her.
The suitcase included documents, it also included a hidden compartment housing 5kg of cocaine.
It would be two years before someone believed her case and she could fly home to NZ.
Maria a grandmother from Sydney Australia fell in love with her fiance despite never meeting, he was supposed to be a US soldier in Afghanistan and asked her to carry a bag containing documents relating to his retirement on a flight from Shanghai to Kuala Lumpur.
It was, in fact, a 1.5kg bag of meth.
The online romance went for 2yrs and the man would call her and sing to her
“He made me feel loved, he made me feel wanted,” said Maria.
She was imprisoned in Malaysia, and prosecutors asked for her execution.
It wouldn’t be until 3yrs after she was imprisoned that she would escape the death penalty after a new law enabled a judge to rule her not guilty, believing she had been scammed.
As of Feb this year she still remains however in the prison…officially taking her to 4yrs imprisonment.
Her Son while happy that she has been found guilty is nervously waiting to be able to return with her back to Sydney.
Victims become so entrenched in the scam they will do nearly anything, too engrossed in the fake relationship to let common sense prevail.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has warned that scammers targeting Australians in love scams will go to “great lengths to gain your interest and trust, such as sharing personal information and even sending you gifts”.
“Scammers may take months to build what seems like the romance of a lifetime and may even pretend to book flights to visit you, but never actually come,” the ACCC said.
The commission warned there are dozens of scams including those involved in dating and romance, identity theft, get-rich investments, money transfers, jobs, and employment.
Fraudsters often personalise scams to fit the profile of their victim.
Often scammers use fake webcams, video changing programs and photographs of other people to build a false identity and then prowl the internet for victims.
The US military has described the scams as a “growing epidemic”.
So what do you when you know someone who is being scammed?
Well according to the ACCC the help will be made harder if your family member is in denial and does not accept they are being scammed.
You can try searching online for the scammer’s details, which will often lead to anti-scam websites where the scammer is already known. Show these results to your family member. You can also show them how many people get scammed every year by using the types of scams data on or by referring them to other real-life stories.
If that fails a representative of your local police or scam victim support group may also be willing to talk things through.
But in all, it comes down to whether or not the person is going to admit it to themselves.
According to ACCC “Most people who have been scammed are too embarrassed or afraid to tell their family when they have a problem.
They fear losing their independence and do not want you to think they’re incapable or vulnerable.
They may withdraw from contact and will not discuss the problem openly. Emotions may include anger, depression, self-reproach, and guilt.
It is also normal for you to feel frustrated or helpless, particularly if your loved one is in denial.
Remain patient and supportive, and remember that they may be experiencing strong emotions, even if they do not immediately show it. Talking about the issue with a support person may prove useful.”
But ultimately intervene.
Even if it means enduring a 79yr olds heartbreak.
Its better than watching them through iron bars overseas, and prevents them from funding highly illegal activities that endanger other human lives.
Charis McAwesome, co-founder and manager of hashtagme.co.nz – Charis has worked in digital for over 10yrs specialising in digital management, analytics, digital advertising, social media, digital pathways, and CRM services.
She’s also most likely to call bullshit and get Hashtag in the shit.