Romance scams: What you should know about the scheme to defraud people

What are romance scams?

According to the FBI, a romance scam happens when a criminal "adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim's affection and trust."

"The scammer’s intention is to establish a relationship as quickly as possible, endear himself to the victim, and gain trust. Scammers may propose marriage and make plans to meet in person, but that will never happen. Eventually, they will ask for money," read a portion of the FBI's website.

Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also say some scammers are taking cryptocurrency from their victims, with a total of $12 million worth of cryptocurrency being taken from older adults in 2020.

Are romance scam victims mostly the elderly?

FBI officials said while older adults are especially at risk, romance scams can happen to people of all ages.

In a separate statement from the Federal Trade Commission, it was reported that the number of romance scam reports involving victims ages 18 to 29 increases more than tenfold from 2017 to 2021.

Victims speak out


On Dec. 12, we spoke with one person who was victimized by a romance scammer.

The victim, identified only as ‘Connie,’ reached out to us, wanting to share her story. She said besides financial loss, the incident left her heart broken.

Connie said she started online dating, after her husband of over four decades died. It didn't take long before a ‘James Herman’ found her.

"He just said things I had not heard, maybe ever or in a long, long time," said Connie. "He said all the right things for sure."

‘James’ claimed to be a Prescott architect who was out of the country for business, but headed back to Arizona soon.

"I was not thinking with my head. I was thinking with my heart, which is stupid on my part," said Connie.

‘James’ sent her a check for $780,000, and showed her an online account of a million dollars. It was a complicated plan, but basically, If Connie just sent him $125,000, he could get out of some legal trouble, and cash the check together.

"I was going all over the place finding money and bitcoin machines. It was horrible. One day, I thought I was going to throw up. It was horrible," said Connie.

Connie said she later got suspicious, and went to the bank to look at the check.

The check was a fake. She didn’t notice it was signed ‘Oprah Winfrey.’

"It’s a big frickin' joke, at my expense," said Connie. "Shocked. Like, ‘oh my god, I’ve been taken.’ Taken for a huge ride here."

Connie's retirement plan was gone. Once she started calling ‘James’ out, ‘James’ started sending gifts: as mural of their pictures, cheap jewelry, and then a blanket of their faces.

As it turns out, the photos were those of Donnie Bennett, a Rhode Island realtor whose pictures have been used by scammers for years, according to Bennett.

"It's weird. It's weird. I feel bad because she was duped, thinking she was talking to me. I feel weird about the whole thing," said Bennett "They’ll do anything. They’re nefarious. Anything they can do to break into someone’s circle of trust and break down that barrier."

"Everything he said was a lie," said Connie, who has filed reports with the police, FBI, and the Attorney General's Office.

"It is embarrassing and humiliating putting my story out there, but I really want this guy caught because this is not right," said Connie.

The profile for ‘James Herman’ has since been deleted. As for the gifts ‘James’ sent to Connie, Connie said many of the gifts were shipped from America, so she is hopeful there may be a way for investigators to track it.

Debi Buskohl

On Dec. 19, we spoke with another woman who fell victim to a romance scam.

Debi Buskohl of Laveen said it began when she was texting a person she thought was the man of her dreams.

"He has a really cute accent. Very sweet. Calls me darling. Very sweet, and when you're a lonely person, you get sucked in very easily," said Buskohl.

Buskohl and the man talked every day, while he headed to the Gulf to work on an oil rig. When he got back. they would finally meet and go to church.,

"I was looking forward to this Christian head of household man, and instead, he took a lot of money," said Buskohl.

First, Buskohl said he needed $5,000 for a helicopter flight home. Then, she took out a loan to give him $50,000 to get out of trouble.

"I don't have money to pay it back, so that's a lot of extra money a month," said Buskohl.

Buskohl said she knew it was a scam when he paid her back with a bogus check.

"Financially, that really hurt me. That changed my life. That's taken away my retirement money," said Buskohl.

We called the man allegedly responsible, but that person did not answer.

Buskohl, meanwhile, wants justice.

"I'm not letting this go," said Buskohl. "I want him found. I want him arrested."

Like Connie, Buskohl has filed reports with police, the Attorney General, and the FBI. Meanwhile, Buskohl has found a new man online, but is having a hard time trusting him. Buskohl's daughter said she is worried her mother is falling for another scam.

Advocate speaks out

"This is big business, the amount of money they're getting from people all over the world," said Joyce Petrowski with an organization called R.O.S.E. (Resource Outreach to Safeguard the Elderly)

Petrowski says romance scams are on the rise, and she created R.O.S.E to prevent people from falling for it.

"They want to groom you for a little while, and build that ultimate trust, just between the two people," said Petrowski. "Then, all of a sudden, it's ‘I need money for this, I need moeny for this,’ and there are never-ending excuses."

How prevalent are romance scams?

According to figures released by the FBI's Houston office, in 2021, some 24,000 people across the U.S. reportedly losing about $1 billion to romance scams.

"It's likely that many more losses went unreported," read a portion of the statement.

Meanwhile, figures from the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center shows 651 Arizonans claiming to have fallen victim to romance scammers in 2021, with a total loss of $20.9 million, representing a 65% increase from the year before.

FBI officials said loneliness, especially during isolation periods due to COVID-19, along with the development of new technologies, contributed to the ongoing rise of romance scams.

What should I do to protect myself?

According to ICE, there are many things people can do to protect themselves and others from romance scams, including:

  • Raising awareness by making sure you, your family and your friends are familiar with romance scams
  • Check in on older loved ones
  • Limit what you share online
  • Research an individual's photo and profile using online searches, to see if the image, name, or other details have been used elsewhere
  • Go slowly, and ask lots of questions
  • Talk to someone you trust if an individual seems too good to be true
  • Do not send money to anyone you have only communicated with online, or by phone

FBI information on Online Romance Scams