80 people charged in widespread romance scam

By Lauren Verno - Consumer investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Department of Justice has announced 80 people have been charged in a conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a romance scam.

Many of the defendants live in Nigeria. The widespread conspiracy defrauded at least $6 million from businesses and vulnerable elderly women.

Each year, thousands of people fall victim to romance scams. In 2018, the Consumer Sentential had 21,000 reports of romance scams for a total loss of $143 million. Some of that money came from Northeast Florida.

Many people are too embarrassed to tell their family members they fell for one of the scams. A woman, who asked to be referred to as Betty, shared her experience with News4Jax.

"I must be an idiot. I'm battling him the whole time thinking this is crazy, I don't have this money to send you. I actually sold my boat," Betty said.

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Betty said she gave the man her retirement fund, which was worth $32,000. 

Diane Standish said she gave her alleged Romeo much more -- $270,000. She was forced to file for bankruptcy.

"Four months into it and then he asked me to marry him," Standish said.

The Federal Trade Commission says on average a person will give about $2,600 to one of the romance scammers. That's seven times higher than other frauds.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried says most people don't report being scammed.

"Everyone needs to be on top of it, if you were a victim of any type of crime. Whether it's consumer fraud or another type of criminal activity. We can't stop it if we don't know it," Fried said.

Data shows romance scams have doubled from 2015-2018. Kathy Scott said she didn't fall for it.

"I saw your story saying, 'FaceTime them,'" Scott said. "He called me again after the story and I said, 'I'll tell you what I said if you want to talk to me, let's make it face to face.'"

Scott said the next day, the man blocked her number.

Some helpful tips to help spot bogus suitors include:

  • Asking the person to FaceTime or Skype. Sending just a picture or prerecorded video is not an option.
  • Never send money or gifts to a sweetheart you haven't met in person.
  • Talk to someone you trust about the new love interest. Pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
  • Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers. 
  • Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures. If they're associated with another name or with details that don't match up, it's a scam.

Help stop these scammers by reporting suspicious profiles or messages to the dating or social media site. Then, click here to file a complaint with the FTC. You can also report fraud to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

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