Dozens of residents from Butler, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties were among the 233 victims of romance scams reported to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office since 2019, state records show.
The fraudsters prey on the lonely through a computer screen. Complaints say they meet online, often Facebook or through a dating app. As they win the victim’s trust and affection, they sometimes spin a wild tale, in multiple cases claiming to be trapped in a desperate situation overseas. The fraudster will eventually ask for money, often in the form of a gift card.
Sometimes the victim will figure it out. In multiple cases, it was the adult daughter or son of an elderly parent who intervened. The average local complaint to the AG’s office estimated losses of more than $15,000.
But many victims do not file complaints in these crimes and when they do, it is extremely difficult to successfully pursue charges in romance scam cases, officials said.
“I think victims are embarrassed that they have been taken advantage of,” said Clark County Prosecutor Dan Driscoll. “And even more so that it happened at the hands of someone they felt loved and cared for them.”
Preying on trust
Shelley Gravenstine of Xenia is among those who have contacted the AG’s office. Gravenstine said her 78-year-old mother has given at least $150,000 to people using fake identities she met online nearly four years ago and has continued into this year. The 58-year-old said her mother has never met in person with these individuals.
“She refuses to believe (it is a scam),” Gravenstine said. “She believes these people are who they say they are and believes everything that they tell her.”
“This can happen to anyone, anywhere,” she said, adding of the scammers, “and these people, we have no idea where they are and don’t know if anybody’s even trying to find them.”
Aside from Gravenstine, residents of Centerville, Dayton, Englewood, Fairborn, Hamilton, Liberty Twp., Mason, Springboro, Springfield, Trotwood and Troy have all told the Ohio AG’s office they were victims of romance scams since 2019, according to state records.
A six-fold increase
Losses reported to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office totaled $1.8 million two years ago, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
That year Ohio ranked 8th nationally with $20.4 million in romance scam losses, Socialcatfish.com reported. The AG’s office said the larger number likely includes reports to other agencies, such as the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), run by the FBI.
“Scam artists often say they are in the building and construction industry and are engaged in projects outside the U.S.,” IC3′s website states. “That makes it easier to avoid meeting in person — and more plausible when they ask for money for a medical emergency or unexpected legal fee. "
Victims commonly say they are contacted on dating apps. More than a third of people who said they lost money to an online romance scam in 2021 said it began on Facebook or Instagram, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Romance scammers “weave all sorts of believable stories to con people,” but common ones involve “pleas for help while claiming one financial or health crisis after another,” according to the FTC.
“The scammers’ stories might involve a sick child or a temporary inability to get to their money for a whole range of reasons. People who lost money to a romance scammer often report sending money repeatedly: they believe they’re helping someone they care about. But it’s all a lie,” the agency states.
Romance scam losses topped $547 million three years ago, six times more than was recorded in 2017, surpassing all other Federal Trade Commission fraud categories, the agency reported.
Federal records show romance scam cases totaled nearly 70,000 in 2022, the most recent data available.
Fairfield case: Dating apps to global intrigue
Federal officials say from January 2019 through July 2021, Benjamin Adu Acheampong of Fairfield conspired with others to create false online profiles, which the conspirators used to express romantic interest in victims, according to an indictment in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
In a criminal complaint in the case, FBI Special Agent Michael Reigle laid out details alleging how Acheampong and others defrauded people out of more than $1 million. According to Reigle’s criminal complaint:
• From February to March 2021, one victim sent at least $100,000 to Acheampong believing that the money would go to a woman he met on Skype named “Sarah,” with whom the victim developed a romantic relationship. Sarah claimed she lived in England and had inherited 450 kilograms of gold bars in Australia from her father. Someone claiming to be Sarah’s attorney then contacted the victim and had him wire money claiming it would help transfer Sarah and the gold to the U.S.
• Another woman developed a romantic relationship with a man going by the name “Wolfgang” who said he was from Ohio, but living in Ghana. Wolfgang in 2020 asked the woman to send a $10,000 check to a friend to purchase a plane ticket.
• In September 2020, another woman met a man going by “Paul” on Match.com, and later spoke with him over Facetime. Paul said he was incarcerated in Rome, Italy after being arrested by customs officials for tax evasion. At Paul’s request, the victim sent a $60,000 cashier’s check to a local business.
• A man met a woman going by “Isabella” on Adult Friend Finder and later exchanged text messages and talked on Google Hangouts. The victim thought they developed a romantic relationship. Isabella said she was from New Jersey then visiting Ghana and inherited gold from her father, but needed help shipping her inheritance to the U.S. The victim estimates he sent about $800,000 in cashier’s checks that ended up at Acheampong’s Fairfield address.
The indictment also alleges that Acheampong made false statements to the Small Business Administration in a Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan application, which resulted in the SBA awarding him more than $20,000 in COVID relief to which he was not entitled.
Federal prosecutors charged Acheampong with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, one count of wire fraud, two counts of international money laundering, and two counts of concealment money laundering. Each of the charges is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Springfield senior center sees scams
United Senior Services in Springfield gets about a case reported per year, said Maureen Fagans, executive director and CEO.
“Every scammer has a believable story and a warning to keep their conversations a secret. That happens with all the scams that we hear about,” she said.
Fagans said in one case involving the USS office in Springfield about three years ago, a woman “in her 70s and lonely” believed “a person who wanted her to sell her belongings and send him the money and he was setting up housekeeping for the two of them” in California.
“We intervened on the family’s behalf at one point,” she added. “And she was so upset about the possibility that this might not be true love that she actually saw a counselor to try to come to terms with it.”
The woman then went back to being involved with the scammer and ended up selling her car, her furnishings — she didn’t own a home — and buying a plane ticket to California “because she agreed to go meet this scammer,” Fagans said.
While unsure of the amount of money sent, Fagans said, the woman gave this person gift cards and other “untraceable ways of sending money” without “ever meeting this person or actually laying eyes on this person.”
The USS has “no idea what happened to her after” buying the plane ticket and has no further contact with the family, Fagans said.
“We do not have a happy ending or an unhappy ending to that scenario,” she added. “But it was recognizable to everyone who tried to help her (by attempting to) intervene. It was recognizable to us that this was a scam. But she just wanted so much to believe that it was true (that) she was willing to look beyond the red flags.”
Xenia woman convicted
In February of last year, a 62-year-old Xenia woman was sentenced to two years in prison after she lied to the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspectors regarding a romance scam and a missing teenager.
Linda Matson was sentenced in U.S. District Court in St. Louis. She pleaded guilty in August 2022 to making false statements to a federal agent.
Postal inspectors found $50,000 that had fallen from a package on April 29, 2020, that was sent by Matson to a post office box used in a romance fraud scheme. They later found a second package containing $50,000 also addressed to the same post office box, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Inspectors contacted Matson, who admitted she had been scammed into sending money to someone claiming to be in the U.S. Army. But Matson then contacted a postal inspector falsely claiming she needed the money back to buy posters and T-shirts to help find her missing niece.
Between June 1 and Aug. 3, 2020, relatives gave Matson $590,000 that was to be used to help the fictitious military officer obtain an imaginary portfolio containing cash and diamonds valued at $20 million. Instead of providing the funds to the U.S. Customs Service as promised, she mailed the money to post office boxes controlled by the romance scammers, federal officials said.
Matson admitted she lied to FBI and postal service investigators regarding the case.
Crimes often not reported
“The victims of romance scams often do not report the cases to law enforcement,” Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr. said in a statement to this news organization.
Clark County’s Driscoll agreed, noting in an email, “we do not recall having any cases of this nature sent to us” since 2017.
Heck said “most of the time, the perpetrators are not local and are many times not even located in the U.S., which would make it impossible for our office to prosecute.”
Driscoll added this: “I also believe that some folks may question whether these types of situations are actually crimes, since the victim feels like they gave their money voluntarily.”
Butler County gets reports and referrals from “multiple channels” — including banks and adult protective services — and has a community outreach director to help potential victims, said Prosecutor Michael Gmoser.
“Often times, it is difficult for family members to convince their loved ones of what is going on,” he said. “So, having a reliable third party to come in and explain the nature of the scam is critical.”
Federal and state officials offer a variety of tips on how to recognize romance scams and how to avoid them. But Fagans of the USS in Springfield said one way is keeping in touch with family members.
“I think the importance of staying connected socially is a good way to prevent the tragedies that happen with these scams,” Fagans said. “Not just romance scams, but any kind of potential scams.
“Being connected to your family, with your friends — people have to make that effort sometimes rather than allowing the world to get small,” she added. “It just makes us all more vulnerable.”
By the numbers
•$1.3B: Money lost by U.S. romance scam victims in 2022.
•$547M: U.S. romance scam victim losses in 2021, six times more than four years earlier.
•$20.4M: Money lost by Ohioans to romance scam cases 2022.
•70,000: U.S. consumers who lost money in romance scam cases in 2022.
•233: Romance scam cases reported to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office since 2019.
Sources: Federal Trade Commission, Socialcatfish.com, Ohio Attorney General’s Office.