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Coronavirus crisis gives a new twist to Internet romance scams

A hand on a computer keyboard in the dark. (PxHere/Released)
November 21, 2020

For Rebecca D’Antonio, who now lives in Orlando, the hook was set when the man she met on the Internet in 2016 told her he was a single dad with a little boy named Evan.

D’Antonio had mentioned in her online dating profile that she loved kids, but couldn’t have them.

Matthew said he was from Australia and worked in oil. They emailed, texted and talked by phone. He made her feel special. He said the camera on his laptop wasn’t working, but he sent pictures that included a little boy. She played games with Evan online.

Three months in, Matthew told her he had taken his son along on a business trip to Nigeria and his credit card stopped working. They needed her help to get out of there.

“I couldn’t leave a 5-year-old in a bad situation,” said D’Antonio. “I sent them money to get them home.”

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“And once you send that first bit of money,” she said, “they’ve got you.”

Romance scammers, according to those who track them, are especially adept at pivoting and adapting to the situation at hand and then working the vulnerabilities. And right now, that often means making the coronavirus part of their narrative.

“Now they’re using COVID,” said David McClellan, president of the California-based socialcatfish.com, a business that verifies online identities and finds people. “We’re hearing that a lot.”

(Catfish is a term for someone who uses false information, which often includes stolen or edited photos of other people, to cultivate a fake persona online.)

Romance scammers have always come up with reasons why they can’t meet in person, like that they’re overseas serving in the military. But the coronavirus crisis provides its own excuses: They can say they are quarantined or stuck in another country because of pandemic-related restrictions.

Scammers also say they’ve contracted the virus and need money for help with medical care, food and other supplies.

The FBI says romance scams are “often financially and emotionally devastating to victims,” who rarely get their money back.

Some tips from the experts: Be careful what you post about yourself online because it can give scammers material to better understand and target you. Look up the person’s photo and profile online to see if it’s been used elsewhere. Go slowly and ask questions. Don’t send money to someone you don’t really know.

And watch for excuses for why someone can’t meet you in person or won’t video chat. Be leery of someone who wants you to leave a social media or dating site quickly to talk privately.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, consumers lost more than $200 million to romance scams in 2019, up nearly 40 percent from a year earlier.

D’Antonio said that between running up her credit cards and decimating her savings, her loss to whomever Matthew really was “was in the six figures.” She declared bankruptcy. She even thought about suicide.

“It’s a very, very dark period of my life,” she said.

D’Antonio is part of a group called Scamhaters United and speaks out about her experiences.

She said that for scammers, the pandemic is a perfect opportunity to exploit.

“If you want to tell a good lie, then stick to the truth as much as possible,” she said. “And you’re not going to find a more real world situation than COVID.”

Now 41, she has built back her life, bought a home and works as an executive assistant and senior associate at a financial advisory firm.

Though she had cut off communication, she was standing in line at a Starbucks last year when she got an email from the person or persons who scammed her, asking: Where are you?

“I didn’t respond,” she said.

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(c) 2020 the Tampa Bay Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.