When Michelle Rodriquez’s mother, Paula Herandez, was defrauded out of $25,000 from a “friend” she made during an online word game she knew it would take some time for her mother to feel comfortable using technology again. What she couldn’t have predicted is the emotional toll it would take on her years after the event passed.
Paula, a 57-year-old woman in Gainesville, FL had started playing the multiplayer word game Words With Friends in early 2016, a game where each player takes turns building words crossword-puzzle style in a manner similar to the classic board game Scrabble.
Through Words With Friends, Paula met a player named Ricky and the two enjoyed playing the word game with each other so much they decided to take their friendship to the next level and become friends over email. Though they never met or talked on the phone, Paula grew close with Ricky through their correspondence.
After several months had passed and their friendship blossomed, Ricky asked Paula if she could help him out with a favor. His young daughter was very ill and he needed financial help in covering her medical treatment—$25,000 exactly. It was nearly everything in her savings account. He told her he was a doctor from Miami who was living overseas for the time being while he worked on a project with Doctors Without Borders and because of issues with being in a different country, he couldn’t access his usual funds back home. He promised her he’d pay her back as soon as his assignment was finished and he was back in the U.S.
“He seemed like a good and honest person. I never considered for a moment he was lying to me,” Paula said. “We had been friends talking everyday for months. Why would someone lie like that?”
Unfortunately, naivety and having a trusting nature are such common attributes amongst older adults, it’s exactly what many con artists and bad actors look for when trying to find someone to scam.
“Seniors are defrauded at twice the rate of the rest of the population,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. Seniors are viewed as a particularly attractive population to scammers as they usually own their own home, have a large savings, and have good credit. They’re also at the most financially and emotionally vulnerable time of their life.
Paula wired Ricky the money he requested and within a day no trace of him could be found. Paula says she kept emailing the email address she had been writing to every day asking how his daughter was and if he received her money only to get a notification her email had been returned to sender.
“For awhile I thought maybe he was just busy at the hospital with his daughter and he’d get back to me when his daughter was better.”
A month after Paula wired the scam artist the money her daughter Michelle began asking questions.
“I noticed my mom was being weird about doing her regular grocery shopping and getting her nails done. She only spends money at a few places and she’s always been great at budgeting, so it seemed odd to me she’d all of a sudden be so broke,” she said.
After several conversations, Paula finally admitted what happened to her.
“She was so embarrassed and thought I would think she was stupid for what she did. We both cried when I found out. I didn’t want my mom to feel bad for thinking she was genuinely helping a stranger out. I just wanted to try to get legal help and see if we could get her money back. But she refused. She didn’t want to even acknowledge what happened. She just wanted to move on and forget about it.”
Paula never heard from Ricky again and she never recovered the $25,000 she lost. Almost immediately after the event, she stopped using all forms of technology, including her beloved iPad she used every morning to Facetime friends and family. According to her daughter, “She started shutting herself off. She didn’t trust herself on the internet anymore.”
Michelle understood the feelings of shame and embarrassment from losing a large sum of money, but she says it was the loss of friendship and betrayal of trust that impacted her mother after that. “She didn’t really want to talk to anyone. She had grown accustomed to having this person in her life, someone to talk to outside of her regular circle of friends. It wasn’t the money she cared about, it was the companionship. Even if it was just online, it meant a lot to her.”
Unfortunately, what happened to Paula is a common scam perpetrated against seniors called the Sweetheart Scam. In this scam a stranger pretends to be someone else, usually a doctor in a foreign country, who gets close to their target over a series of messages sent over several weeks or months, gaining the person’s trust and learning more about their personal life, eventually convincing the senior to wire a large sum of money, never to be found again. The impact is devastating, both financially and emotionally.
According to a survey from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), researchers found that falling victim to fraud is much more likely to have a substantial emotional impact (68%) on the elderly than a substantial financial impact (32%). And phone and internet scams top the list of ways financial fraud is perpetrated against the elderly. This is according to the AICPAs Personal Financial Planning (PFP) Trends Survey, which includes responses from 688 CPA financial planners.
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