BY DIANE DIMOND
The woman’s Facebook page reveals she is a high school graduate, fit and trim-looking and nicely dressed. She lives in small town in the southern U.S. and is a devoted Christian who loves animals. Each photograph shows her with a beaming, trusting smile. She is almost always seen standing alone, and a simple scroll down her Facebook page makes it clear her husband is gone. She is a widow and a prime target.
I learned about this 76-year-old woman — let’s call her “Jane” — from her devoted son and my friend, “John.” His father died about two years ago. Even though John lives across the country, he remains very attentive to his mother and makes sure all her material needs are met. They have a joint bank account, and in early September, John noticed a $700 internet transaction from his Mom to someone named Abubakar Abdul. He began to gently question Jane, and a devastating story spilled out.
Jane revealed that for some eight months she had been communicating online with a handsome military officer named Terry Miller. Miller, the lonely widow told her son, had “liked” one of her smiling Facebook photos, and they began a pen-pal relationship, which quickly turned into a long-distance romance. Miller’s profile listed him as Christian, single and hailing from Fort Worth, Texas. He was seen wearing a spiffy uniform adorned with ribbons and medals, as well as a jaunty red beret indicating he was part of the U.S. Army Airborne force. Jane was smitten.
You see where this is going, right?
Jane said her beau told her he was a four-star general stuck in London and had secret a stash of gold that he was unable to bring back to the states through regular channels. He told Jane that if he only had some cash in hand, he could come home with his bounty and they could be together, sharing the riches. Jane became one of the countless victims of internet-based romance scams when she began to send him money.
John discovered his mother had actually been communicating with an audacious scammer in Ghana who had pilfered the photos of a real U.S. military man named Terry Michael Hestilow and created the fictitious “Terry Miller” profile. The scammer convinced Jane to go to Walmart and buy a burner phone so they could “have their own special way of communicating,” according to her son. The scammer was apparently able to clone the phone, so when the bank sent Jane a pre-transaction code, he was able to intercept it and dip into her account at will.
“My Mom told me she had only spoken to him on the phone 1 or 2 times and he had a thick accent,” John told me.
John says he bluntly asked his mother, “Why would a four-star General have a thick accent? Why would a four-star General need your help? Why would a four-star General have all that gold?” She had no answers.
John said it took two days to convince his mother there was no Terry Miller. He showed her several articles about the widespread scam and a story quoting the real man seen in the photos who said Facebook had refused to remove many of the phony profiles using his picture. Terry Michael Hestilow said Facebook responded to him and his wife by writing, “We reviewed the profile you reported and found that it doesn’t go against our community standards.”
Hestilow told his local Texas TV station that he was “angry” about the blatant fraud. If Facebook investigated “and found that it doesn’t violate their community standards, then something is wrong with their community standards,” he said. Interestingly, there is a “Military Romance Scams” Facebook page that warns about this type of rip-off, yet, apparently, Facebook does not follow through and remove obvious con artists.
When John asked his normally level-headed mother how she had fallen for such a ploy, she responded simply.
“Well, I trusted him,” she said. John asked, “But (SET ITAL) why (END ITAL) did you trust him?” and she replied, “Because of my instincts.” John told me in a sad voice, “I’m shaking my head hearing this and asking, ‘Where is my mother?'” In the end, Jane lost “everything,” according to her son: tens of thousands of dollars gone.
The FBI reports $50 million is lost every year to these so-called romance scams. They have traditionally originated in Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast or Vietnam, but also right here in the United States.
Loneliness and depression following the death of a longtime spouse can profoundly affect the mindset of those left behind. Both widows and widowers have fallen prey to various types of ploys. It is easy to snicker at these victims. It’s much harder to understand the vulnerabilities that allowed them to be so blatantly cheated.
If you know any solo elderly people who frequent the internet, talk to them about this column. Warn them about the evil that lurks beyond.