Whistleblower: Romance scam nets $1.5M from victims in 2 years

  • Article by: ALEJANDRA MATOS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2014 - 10:43 AM
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A man claiming to be “Peter Strand” of Roseville persuaded a Maplewood woman in her early 60s to send him $300,000, depleting her retirement accounts. After months of chatting online, Strand had convinced her that he loved her.

“Edward Gregers,” who said he was from Edina, received more than $30,000 from a woman in her 30s from North Carolina who believed she was helping him get home from the Philippines after doing some work as an engineer. The woman met Gregers on the online dating site Christian Mingle.

Both were phony names of people who likely lived in Africa or East Asia, not in Minnesota.

In the past two years, more than 80 people claiming to live in Minnesota stole more than $1.5 million after convincing women and men across the country that they were in love with them, according to data obtained by Whistleblower from the Federal Trade Commission. Over that period, there were 20,000 complaints of romance scams nationwide.

Steve Baker, the FTC’s Midwest regional director, said there are likely many more predators and victims out there because romance scams are grossly underreported.

According to the data, victims typically met the scammers on dating sites, Facebook or Yahoo chat rooms. Many of the scammers claimed to be engineers, architects or businessmen who live in Minnesota but are traveling in Malaysia, Egypt, the Philippines, Nigeria or other countries on behalf of the government or a large corporation.

After weeks, even months of talking online or on the phone, the scammers then claimed to have run into trouble overseas without access to their money. They promise to repay their victims.

“The day he was to return to the States, he stated he was short on money to purchase a certificate to do business in Egypt,” an Illinois woman told the FTC. At first she said no, but gave in a week later and sent $1,400.

The majority of the victims scammed by people claiming to be in Minnesota were women between 50 and 56, according to the data.

Baker said a study of victims conducted in the United Kingdom found no clear patterns in factors like age, mental health issues or income for those who fall victim to “romance scams.”

“The only commonality … was that the people who fall for this tend to be people who believe in true love,” Baker said. “That fits with what I’ve seen.”

The data obtained by Whistleblower does not contain the names of the victims because they are not public information, but their stories often tell of embarrassment and despair.

“I feel as though no one can help and this ‘scammer’ can go on taking advantage of other women,” said a Florida woman in her early 60s. “Very depressed and vulnerable” after a diagnosis of stage-4 cancer, she lost $149,000 to “Timothy Dawson from St. Paul.”

Baker said it’s “extremely rare” for a victims to get their money back because most of the people behind these scams are elusive.

Consumers should also be wary of anyone who is not willing to meet them in person, or asks for money to be sent via MoneyGram or Western Union, Baker said.

Baker said the scam is very common. “This is something that people need to worry about.”

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