- Thom Glick
Carol Perry was smitten. A year after her husband died, the 73-year-old Vermonter met Chris Maxwell on the online dating site Plenty of Fish. Maxwell said he was born in Greece but lived in New York City. He promised to come meet Perry in person at her senior living facility in Vernon.
"Can you just imagine when you come down and I'm standing here with my arms open, ready to hug you?" Perry remembered him asking her.
But first, Maxwell told Perry, he was socking away money to retire. He told her a vague story about a trip he had to make to Europe so he could captain a boat that was delivering a load of fuel to Russia. When he returned, he said, they would move in together. During their twice-weekly phone conversations, he called her his "wife."
Turned out Perry hadn't landed the man of her dreams. She'd fallen for a fraud.
Over the course of four years, Maxwell coaxed her out of more money than she had to give and also persuaded her to move about $20,000 of "his" funds between different bank accounts — a tactic scammers sometimes use to launder money, according to officials.
"I feel that it was really foolish of me to put my heart into that," said Perry, who is still mourning the loss of the beau she thought she knew. "It's sad," she said. "A dream is gone."
Perry's not alone in getting her heart broken — and savings pilfered — by some shady swindler on the internet. Romance scams, known as "catfishing," target the vulnerable and lonely. The majority of victims are women over the age of 60, especially those who are recently divorced or widowed. Rutland attorney Paula McCann, who practices elder law, said she suspects that fraudsters read the obituaries and target surviving spouses.
Fueled by social media, more than 21,000 romance scams were reported nationally in 2018, compared to 8,500 in 2015, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The tally is much smaller in Vermont, where residents reported just 24 such schemes last year, up from 16 in 2013, when the state first started tracking the crimes.
But the actual number is likely much larger. The National Adult Protective Services Association found that only one in 44 victims of financial abuse — which includes romance scams — reported the crime.
"Primarily, folks are embarrassed to say they've been taken," said Dave Reville, associate state director for AARP Vermont, which works to raise awareness of the issue.
The swindlers create fake profiles on social media or dating sites to lure victims, then move the conversation to email or text. They'll frequently pose as U.S.-based builders, consultants or freelancers.
Like "Maxwell," the fraudsters often say they have to go abroad for business, where they have an accident or get sick and request cash to get out of the jam. The scammer will ask the victim to transfer money from one account to another, wire cash via Western Union or send gift cards.
Many use their unwitting "dates" as accomplices in money-laundering schemes, according to the FTC. And those duped once are often targeted again: Scammers have been known to circulate "sucker lists" with personal information of those they've defrauded, Special Agent Christine Beining wrote in 2017 on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's website.
The callous crimes do pay. According to FTC data from 2018, the nationwide median loss in a romance scam is $2,600, roughly seven times more than any other type of fraud.
The schemes are among the hardest to prove and, because victims often continue to defend the perpetrators, "almost impossible to prosecute," according to McCann.
The frauds come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
In February, a Dummerston convenience store clerk called the Vermont State Police when an older man came in to buy nearly $1,000 in iTunes gift cards. An unfamiliar woman had contacted him on Facebook, and they struck up a relationship. She made up a story about an inheritance and told the man she needed the cards to pay for legal fees, according to police.
In a press release about the fraud, Sgt. Christopher Buckley warned that "if it seems too good to be true, then it likely is."
Last October, an Arkansas man was sentenced in Chittenden County Superior Court to two years' probation for his passive role in a scam that defrauded CityPlace Burlington developer Don Sinex out of nearly $30,000. Two years earlier, the vice president of finance for Devonwood Investors received an email that appeared to be from Sinex, her boss. It directed her to transfer $29,348 from Sinex's business account to the Arkansas bank account of 61-year-old Michael Marshall. He told authorities he agreed to receive the money at the request of a woman he met on an online dating site. In exchange for transferring the funds to another account, the woman told Marshall he would receive $2,000. Police never found the woman.
That's not surprising. The majority of perpetrators are based abroad, making it nearly impossible for the state to find and prosecute them, according to Charity Clark, chief of staff for Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan. Several complaints from the last three years described men from Nigeria.
"Vermont simply does not have the resources to pursue a lone overseas scammer," Chris Curtis, the AG's public protection division chief wrote in an email to Seven Days. Even if the state did press charges, Clark compared it to a game of whack-a-mole: "If you get one, another one will pop up somewhere else."
The state has focused its efforts on prevention. In 2015, the Vermont legislature passed a law that requires dating sites to warn their users when someone with whom they have communicated gets banned. Clark said she didn't know whether the law, which went into effect in 2017, had prevented any crimes.
That same year, Clark said, Donovan partnered with the Department of Public Service to start sending out "scam alert" calls to warn Vermonters of common frauds. Last month, Donovan held a press conference to warn about a scam in which fake computer repair workers ask people to send money, share passwords or provide credit card information. "The best offense is a great defense," he said.
But the emotional pull of romance scams can defy both logic and awareness. Perry, for instance, has been targeted more than once.
After a year of communicating with Maxwell, she started talking to an online suitor in 2016 who said he was an antiques dealer. She stopped the conversations when she recognized that the furniture photos he sent her were from a spread in Yankee magazine.
The next year, she chatted with a fraudster who requested money for his daughter. Perry actually wrote a letter to the "daughter" and received a response — but she didn't send any cash.
Maxwell was different. He started by asking for small payments, $40 or $50 at a time, some of which he wanted for cellphone minutes so he could call her — and Perry complied. The largest payment Perry ever sent him was $400, which she had to borrow from a friend.
Later, when she refused to send more money, he asked her to pick up cash he wired to her. Perry would then send it to other people, per his instructions, via Western Union or Walmart. When her activity raised flags at one local bank, Perry said, she would go to another to receive the next batch of cash.
Perry said she didn't know the recipients or what Maxwell was doing. "I never asked. I just did what he told me to," she said.
Perry said everyone around her suspected it was a scam, including her children. Her pastor even called Maxwell on Perry's behalf. About six months ago, a local bank contacted the Windham County sheriff, who came to her apartment and told her to report the scheme to the AG's office, she said.
Still, Perry refused to break off the relationship. It ended in February, when Maxwell told her he was headed to visit his cousins in a village in Greece and never called again. "I texted him and texted him and texted him, but he never answered," Perry said. "I wasn't any good to him. I didn't have any more banks near me."
McCann, the Rutland attorney, has seen other examples of blind devotion. A couple of years ago, she represented a Vermont woman who took out a second mortgage on her house to send cash to a scammer.
When the crime came to light, the FBI was interested. But the woman refused to testify against the man, and the FBI had to drop the case, according to McCann.
Vermont's large population of older, often isolated elders is vulnerable to this kind of con, according to Victoria Lloyd, a lawyer who runs her own business advocating for seniors. But the state has no idea how big the problem actually is. "Here's the take-home message: We need data," she said.
The Financial Abuse Specialist Team of Vermont, a nonprofit Lloyd founded, partnered with the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College to crunch the numbers. They hope to release a report later this year documenting financial abuse in Vermont and New Hampshire.
That will help them lobby for more resources to hire and train case managers and regularly check on elderly people in their homes, Lloyd said: "If you don't have family, those roles are going to be filled by social services organizations."
A Google search might have prevented one 68-year-old Rutland woman from becoming a statistic. Last December, the woman, who asked that her name not be used, met a man on eHarmony who called himself Charles Rodes.
His ruse was detailed: He described the Baptist church he attended in Hanover, N.H., and when he said he went to Cyprus for a construction project, he sent photos of himself in a Turkish airport, then snapshots of the building site.
Rodes claimed he wasn't able to ship in the construction equipment he needed, so he asked her to transfer $30,000 from his bank account to that of his business assistant in Turkey. She followed his directions — though she now realizes it was all a hoax.
Her son showed her that the customs forms Rodes had sent after the transfer had misspellings. Most telling, Rodes' name didn't show up in an online search.
The woman is hesitant to go back to online dating, but, she said, at her age and in Rutland, "there aren't a ton of eligible bachelors."
In the real world, she said, "I haven't met anyone I liked as much as him."
By the numbers
Romance scams reported to the Vermont attorney general between 2013 and 2018.
The total amount Vermonters reported losing in online confidence fraud and romance scams in 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Internet Crime Complaint Center.
The percentage of Vermont adults who said they or someone they know has fallen for an online relationship scam, according to an AARP survey.