DENVER (KDVR) — Preying on the lonely during the pandemic has become a multi-million dollar industry. A study by the FBI and Socialcatfish.com shows COVID-19-related romance scams are running rampant during the pandemic, generating more than $200 million over the past year.
Colorado’s attorney general warns the issue may only worsen before Valentine’s Day.
Army veteran Lea Peterson was targeted by an exceptionally sophisticated and well-organized scam.
She tells the FOX31 Problem Solvers she wants to share her experience in order to warn others of the proliferation of these scams, which often use trustworthy dating sites to manipulate victims into loaning large amounts of money.
Peterson tells FOX31 she was devastated and lonely after the loss of her beloved husband to cancer in 2017. Later, isolation during the coronavirus pandemic created an enormous emotional burden.
“I was lonely, tired of being alone and I needed somebody,” she said.
Peterson turned to a legitimate dating website to find companionship. She says a man who came off as a “real prince charming” reached out to her, providing what she later learned was a fake profile picture and an address he copied from a legitimate real estate website.
“He was just flattering and intelligent and kind and turned out he was a scammer,” she said.
Peterson says the man showered her with affection, even promising marriage, but explained he had a high-level job managing an oil rig, which is why he couldn’t make time to actually see her in person.
She says he would explain, “’I’m a petroleum engineer and I’m going into the Gulf so I can’t talk to you now.'”
To gain Peterson’s trust, the man had her check out his healthy, yet fake, bank account, which showed a balance of $3 million. The scammer then asked Peterson to “do him a favor” and pay another business for him using the account.
Later the man complained that the bank had suddenly placed a safety block on the account since Peterson, who wasn’t linked to the account, made a transaction. He said it was the bank’s security policy. Since he still needed to pay a vendor in order to do business related to the “oil rig,” he asked Peterson to loan him $25,000.
After she provided the money, he never called her again.
“When I realized it, I was literally sick to my stomach,” she said.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser warns these scams are likely to get worse as Valentine’s Day approaches.
He issued this statement to FOX31:
“As many Coloradans are seeking companionship via dating apps and websites during the Covid-19 pandemic, scammers are preying on their loneliness and disconnection. Instead of finding romance, some may find a scammer trying to trick them into sending money or providing personal information to steal their identity. We urge Coloradans to remain vigilant when connecting virtually, especially with Valentine’s Day just around the corner.”
Peterson tells FOX31 she struggles with the intrusion on her life.
“I’m embarrassed. I’m ashamed. I hate that this happened,” she said.
Still, she wants to do what she can to warn and educate others who may fall victim to these elaborate scams that often involved teams of people working in a nationwide or global network.
“If someone professes their love for you after a very short time, don’t always buy into it,” she said.
Scams should be reported to the Attorney General’s Office.
For more information, visit the Stop Fraud Colorado website.