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A Crime of Passion, Sweetheart Scams Can Be Costly

My mom was one of thousands preyed upon by this nasty con. Here's what to watch out for and how to protect those you love.

As originally published by Kiplinger, February 15, 2017

By: Marguerita Cheng
Tel: 301-502-5306
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It was one of the worst calls I've ever received. I was informed by a social worker that my mom was a victim of a sweetheart scam.

The news made me realize that, even though my sister is a compliance officer and I serve on the Elder Abuse and Financial Exploitation Prevention Committee in our nation's capital, our own mother isn't immune to fraud.

The truth is, my mom isn't alone. According to the IC3 Internet Crime Report in 2013, there were 6,412 reports of sweetheart scams costing victims close to $82 million. Older people are especially at risk for fraud. Americans 65 and up are more likely to be targeted by con artists and more likely to lose money, according to a study from the Fraud Research Center.

I bought my mom an iPhone in April 2015, two months after my dad passed away. The goal was to help her connect with the world as she traveled to visit her cousin and some high school classmates. She's always been active on Facebook and started meeting people.

I encouraged her to meet people through introductions and get together during the day in public places. After the death of my dad, I was supportive of her connecting with others through bereavement groups and social activities.

As a financial adviser and advocate for the aging population, I coached my mother about strangers. We had discussions about the danger of sharing personal information. Unfortunately, she met someone online who tricked her. He said he was experiencing financial difficulty, and my caring, trusting mom wanted to help him out. It cost her several thousand dollars.

There is nothing sweet about a scam

Sweetheart scams can happen on the Internet or in person. Con artists scour online dating sites, social media accounts and chat threads searching for targets. Those recently divorced or widowed can be especially vulnerable.

The sweetheart scam seduces victims into thinking they are in a whirlwind romance. Con artists pretend to want a romantic relationship to swindle the person. They use persuasion and emotional blackmail to hook and reel in a target.

Once the relationship is established, the criminal fabricates a crisis. A scammer might say he or she needs an operation or cash to visit the victim.

Many victims are often embarrassed to come forward. Fortunately, in my mom's case a social worker spotted the fraud, and together they contacted me. Although my mom had already sent this con artist about $5,000, we were able to intervene in time to stop a $15,000 wire transfer.

Speaking from a financial adviser viewpoint, the sweetheart scam is a dastardly, cowardly act that could jeopardize a senior's financial stability in retirement.

From personal and professional experience, I offer a few tips:

Silence is not golden. Be an advocate for loved ones, neighbors, church members and aging friends. Encourage open communication, because silence is a deadly weapon. Ask about what is going on in their lives and ask about their day. Inquire if they have met someone new.

Be a detective. Once you find out about a new acquaintance, do some sleuthing by looking up the person online. Googling is a key weapon in discovering dishonesty online.

Go face-to-face. Encourage people to meet in safe places, such as a library or coffee house. Research potential social gatherings through a trusted organization, such as church or single's group in your hometown.

Do some research. Visit the National Adult Protective Services Association's website. It has great resources about warning signs and what to do if you suspect someone you love is being taken advantage of.

I don't want to scare the hopeless romantics out there. My mom did make some nice connections. Unfortunately, there are people who pretend to be something they are not and try to lure our loved ones into their web of lies. Knowing a few key signs to watch for can protect the vulnerable people in our lives.

Marguerita M. Cheng, CFP®, CRPC®, RICP®, Chief Executive Officer at Blue Ocean Global Wealth, is a Certified Financial Planning Expert with 18 years of experience. Prior to co-founding Blue Ocean Global Wealth, she was a Financial Advisor at Ameriprise Financial and an Analyst and Editor at Towa Securities in Tokyo, Japan. Ms. Cheng serves as a Women's Initiative (WIN) Advocate and subject matter expert for CFP Board, contributing to the development of examination questions for the CFP® Certification Examination. In 2017, she was named the #3 Most Influential Financial Advisor in the Investopedia Top 100, a Woman to Watch by InvestmentNews, and a Top 100 Minority Business Enterprise (MBE®) by the Capital Region Minority Supplier Development Council (CRMSDC).

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