After a divorce, dates that didn't go anywhere, and the continued hope that she might meet someone online whom she could marry, Jodi Bourgeois met the perfect man -- someone who identified himself as Greg Garic. Garic told her that his wife had died while giving birth to their son five years earlier, and he said he hadn't dated anyone until the day, last April, that he messaged Bourgeois on Chemistry.com. Nights of instant messaging, for three or four hours at a time, followed and Garic spoke with Bourgeois about his childhood in France, projects he worked on as an engineer, and their shared love of dogs. Bourgeois confided that she couldn't have children. "He was very good with words," Bourgeois recalls. "Some of the emails he sent me were unbelievable. I showed them to my friends and they were like, 'Oh my god, he’s so romantic. He’s wonderful'." After a week, Garic was saying, "I love you," and within a month he and Bourgeois were talking about marriage. He said he lived in Chicago, and even called Bourgeois from a 312 area code, but a business trip took Garic to London before the pair could to meet in person. Once Garic said he had arrived in London, he asked Bourgeois for $1,800, a request that stunned her. "When he first asked me for the money, it was like somebody punched me in the gut," she says. "When it started coming up [more often], I was pulling back a little bit. I started getting a feeling." Bourgeois, who works for the state of Louisiana, had searched for "Greg Garic" on Google when she first started communicating with him, but nothing suspicious came up. But when Garic's requests for money grew persistent -- to the point that he asked her to use a credit card and take out a loan when she said she didn't have enough cash on hand -- she began to worry about his motives. So she tried a different Google search: "Greg Garic, internet scam." The results took Bourgeois to a victim support website devoted to exposing digital scams where she counted at least four women posting about Garic. "Everything from that blog fit my situation to a T," Bourgeois recalls. "I was floored. I kept thinking how could I not have seen it sooner?" According to the site, Garic, who couldn't be reached for comment, was a scammer working out of West Africa, and one of the women in the support group had posted the text of a romantic email he sent her that Bourgeois recognized word for word. "I've cried," she says. "I cried Monday. I cried yesterday. I cried a little bit today…He knew exactly what to say to tug at my heartstrings. Because I can't have children, he told me I could be the mother to his." In the end, Bourgeois may have lost some of her dignity to Garic, but she never lent him any money. Others who have been targeted by romantic predators online have fared much worse. A friend of Bourgeois lost $20,000 in a scam to another man who lied about serving in the military, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation says that 5,600 people in the U.S. alone reported being victimized in online romance scams in 2011. They lost an average of $10,000 each, totaling around $50 million. Romance and fraud have been mingling for ages, of course, and the fact that Lotharios pull on victim's heartstrings in order to open their purse strings is an ancient tale. But the advent of the Internet, and the realities of our digitally-connected world, make romantic predators more potent than ever before, with bags of tricks that allow them to disguise their location, their identity and their intentions with relative ease. Analysts also have come to understand much more about the victims themselves as well — and to answering the question of why a man or a woman (though most victims are women) would fork over a significant sum of money in the earliest stages of a romance to someone they've never met before. While it might be easy to dismiss the victims as thoughtless, or even dumb, romance scams aren't about intelligence: they're about emotion. And what experts now know about victims is that they aren't simply lonely-hearts. Instead, they tend to have highly idealized notions of romance and marriage, and share a basic belief that most people are, alas, well-intentioned. When people like this look to the web for companionship, they form emotional bonds quickly and with an abandon they might not demonstrate in the workaday, offline world. "People fall in love very quickly online and form hyper-personal relationships," says Monica Whitty, a psychologist with the University of Leicester in England. Such connections can be "more intimate than a face-to-face relationship…People self-disclose a lot more information than they normally would." Although romantic predators target every demographic, from 20-somethings to women in their 30s, Nikolas Savage, an agent with the FBI, says the majority of victims appear to be somewhat older women in their 40s and 50s and they tend to be the ones who lose the most money. But other analysts aren't entirely certain about the demographics of romantic scams because only a portion of the victimized population is willing to come forward and discuss their plights or to take legal action. Whitty recently studied 466 romance scam victims from a sample of around 1,200 online daters and found that older women weren't any more likely to fall for predators. In general, the victims she encountered had one overlapping characteristic distinguishing them from the people who had not been scammed, and it wasn't their age or their gender. "Romantic beliefs," are the common trait, says Whitty. "The people who believe that there is an ideal perfect person out there are the people who are more prone to being victims of the scam." For her part, Bourgeois, who is 41, says she recognizes all of this about herself. "I watch romance movies a lot, and I would say that I would like to have something like that. Maybe that's not realistic, but I believe in romance, I really do," she says. "And I believe in love at first sight."
THE NIGERIAN CONNECTION Mary Wheaton, a divorced, 51-year-old from Grand Rapids, Mich., is a woman of faith, and one night, though she still can't say why, she felt compelled to click on a Match.com advertisement that popped up on her computer screen. Wheaton soon connected with a man named Terry Donald Slyd. In the very first message Slyd sent her on Match.com, Wheaton says, he suggested the two talk on IM instead. "Within three days, he already was expressing strong affection and attraction, when he didn't know anything about me," Wheaton recalls. "I expressed [that] to him. I said, 'I'm concerned that you're getting too attached and we don't even know each other yet.' That's one of the things they do, is they flatter you." Wheaton and Slyd grew closer as they continued to talk on instant messenger. He emailed her three times a day, often quoting poetry. He sent her pictures of him with his daughter, and of the house where they lived. Two weeks in, Slyd shared with Wheaton a past tragedy that had defined him: his wife had died while giving birth to their second child, and the baby hadn't survived either. When Wheaton had doubts -- and she remembers having plenty of them, especially when Slyd called her and his accent sounded French, though he said he'd grown up in Germany -- she prayed. "Throughout the whole relationship, I kept trying and reading my Bible," she recalls. "And every time I tried to seek guidance in that area, I would get something that confirmed that I needed to continue this relationship." Wheaton's suspicions were strong enough early on that she threatened to cut off communication with Slyd if they didn't meet in person. With that, he promised to come to Grand Rapids to visit her. Slyd said he was traveling to Spain on business and bringing his 12-year-old daughter with him. But the plan, he claimed, was to come directly to Michigan from Spain. When he arrived in Spain (if he was actually ever there at all), mishaps began. He told Wheaton that customs agents at the airport seized his cash. He said his daughter wasn't feeling well and that he just wanted to get her someplace safe, so Wheaton says she wired him $2,000 to pay for his hotel room for two weeks. Then he needed $5,000 for legal fees. Wheaton felt that Slyd's story didn't add up: He asked for money to buy plane tickets to fly from Spain to Michigan, but why hadn't he purchased round trip tickets in the first place? Wheaton says that she doesn't have a Cinderella complex. For years, when people asked about her marital status, she answered, "Happily single." "For me, it was an intellectual versus spiritual battle," she explains. "I was following it as an act of faith, not knowing where God would lead me, even though intellectually, I was thinking I need to get rid of this guy." Wheaton wired Slyd more money — she gave him $15,000 in total — so that he and his daughter could fly to Michigan. But Slyd, who couldn't be reached for comment for this article, told her he was in a car accident on the way to the airport and that his daughter was in the hospital, near death and in need of surgery. A man claiming to be "Dr. Matthew" from a St. Matthew's hospital in Spain even e-mailed Wheaton to explain that Slyd's daughter was being treated. But Wheaton decided not to send any more money. She says she reached a point where ignoring the red flags — like the name of the doctor being exactly the same as the name of the hospital and a friend telling her the email must be fake — became too much. "It was just a constant conflict of feeling like I was doing stuff that didn’t make any sense to me," she says. "And I couldn't handle that any more. It didn't make any logical sense." As soon as Wheaton turned off the cash spigot, Slyd pressured her again. "He made it seem like it was my fault because I wouldn't give him any money," says Wheaton. "If I would have given him $3,000, the doctor would do the surgery, but I didn't, so he had to watch her die." Frustrated by the guilt-trip and all the red flags, Wheaton sought out a victim support website called Romancescams.org and turned to a counselor on staff for some live chat support. After that, she took an online quiz to see if she'd just been conned: -- Has someone fallen in love with you quickly? YES -- Do they immediately want to leave the dating site to use IM or email? YES -- Do they claim to be from the US but working overseas; Nigeria or U.K.? YES
And so on. Wheaton answered yes to every question. Romancescams.org is stocked with veterans of romance cons. Started in 2005, its founder is Barbara Sluppick, who started the group after she fell for a man online who claimed to be from the U.K. "I knew that his accent was Nigerian," Sluppick recalls. "I was just lucky enough to have a guy that I worked with that was Nigerian and I'd had many, many conversations with him."
Sluppick pulled herself out of the relationship before losing any money to her predator, but others she works with haven't been as fortunate. Today, Romancescams.org has 19,000 active members posting about their experiences and supporting one another, the details of their stories helping to lift the veil off of the ways scammers operate. Sluppick says that the majority of romance scams she deals with originate in Ghana and Nigeria and that predators there have provided a road map for how they target and take advantage of victims.
"They're taking actual notes," Sluppick says of the predators. "You say, 'Oh, I'm looking to have three kids and I want this and I want that.' In a very short period of time, they become the dream person that you're looking for." According to Sluppick, a scammer's first move is to get a victim off a dating site and onto email or instant messenger -- they might even say they cancelled their membership on the dating site because they found their perfect match. Then come the endearing nicknames -- "baby," "honey," "sweetie." Predators use the same pet name for all of their victims -- everyone is just "sweetie," for example -- so they don't screw up names when they're IMing (mistakenly calling Jane, Mary, and outing themselves). Most scammers are men, analysts say, but they're savvy enough to con their own: Whitty says that predators can use apps to disguise their voices over the phone, allowing a husky-voiced male to sound like a breathy, eager young woman. Digitally enhanced, the scams just keep coming. According to the FBI, there have been 2,600 romance scam complaints made in 2012 so far, and 790 of them were by males, with $3.6 million in reported losses. Sluppick notes that predators also use gifts as part of their artillery. Beyond merely softening up a victim, gift-giving allows predators to get a crucial bit of information: an address. With an address in hand, predators can set up a reshipping scam. They buy items with a stolen credit card, send them to the victim's house, and ask the victim to ship the goods back to them. Check-kiting is another popular tactic. Romantic predators ask their victim to cash a check for them and wire the money along. Victims later discover that the check they cashed never cleared and that law enforcement officials are investigating them for fraud. According to Sluppick, victims have ended up facing criminal charges when all they thought they were doing was helping someone they loved in a perfectly legal way.
The list of strategies that prime a victim to do these things goes on and on, and it all amounts to a steady courtship and seduction aimed at making a victim a softer and more accessible mark. "I'm not afraid to call it grooming, because that's what it is," says Savage, the FBI agent. "It doesn't matter who you are, what you look like, what your education level is, or how much money you make."
What scammers are good at, Savage says, is exploiting whatever vulnerability they detect. For Bourgeois, that meant the promise of a baby. For Wheaton, it may well have been as simple as her scammer knowing she was a good Christian. Although the majority of romance scams are still dominated by men working out of West Africa, in recent years similar schemes have also started emanating from other parts of the world, according to analysts and law enforcement officials. Savage, the FBI agent, says the growth reflects the success predators are enjoying. "We are seeing it from all corners of the world," he says. "I think we're seeing the majority of it from Africa, but if it's working, then other people are going to jump on board with it."
Fred, who is 49 and works as a physician in the Chicago area and asked that his full name not be used for this article, says he began an online relationship two years ago with someone he believed to be a male model from St. Petersburg, Russia. Fred admits that he's a romantic who falls in love quickly, and all that the model really had to do to draw him in was give him some attention. "I'm shy. I'm quiet. I do have low self-esteem," Fred says. "I have a very hard time meeting people, whether it's romantic love, friendship, anything. And he made it so easy."
Kind words over email, Skype and text, in addition to promises of a future together, were enough to seduce Fred. But the model made sure to continue to keep Fred's insecurities alive and well: he says the model often reminded him that he was lucky -- or more likely not good enough -- to be with someone so young and attractive in the first place.
Eventually, they reached an understanding: If Fred would support the model with $2,500 every month, the model would quit his job, and in time, move to the United States so the two could be together.
But by April of this year, the model still hadn't moved and Fred had given him $100,000 - including money to buy a car, a new laptop and a camera. The best explanation Fred can think of as for how it all happened is emotional blackmail. When he wouldn't give the model more money, the man threatened to leave him and go find someone wealthier who would. After the last payment Fred provided -- $42,000 -- he started to ask for his money back and the model stopped communicating with him altogether. "There are a lot of characteristics that I have…I'm sensitive, caring, giving; I'm all those things. And someone like him will pick up on all those things and know how to manipulate them," Fred says, adding that even early on, deep down, he suspected he was being scammed.
"But he had me so sucked in," Fred says. "He was so evil, and so good at what he did, that it made it almost impossible for me to say no."
When Karen Hansen, a 63-year-old former nurse's assistant from Minnesota, talks about trying move on from the man she fell in love with on Match.com last summer, she doesn't sound like she's talking about someone who scammed her out of $20,000 -- the bulk of her retirement money.
"He called and you wanted to call him back," Hansen says. "You had that feeling of you had to talk to him." If there is such thing as Stockholm syndrome in online romance scams, Hansen suffered from it. "After I found out he was a scammer, it was hard to break that, you know, that love," she says. "Or what do you call it -- you thought you were in love."
It took Hansen three months in therapy, and a stay at a mental hospital to treat the depression she was dealing with, to accept that the relationship had never been real.
Victims can go broke after a scam -- Hansen ended up losing her house to a short sale after giving most of her savings to pay her predator's debts and other costs -- but those who have worked with anyone who has been fleeced say the emotional fallout can be worse than financial losses.
In Professor Whitty's interviews with victims, she found that ties to the scammer are, indeed, hard to break. One woman she interviewed was so attached to her scammer that she kept a photo of him on her iPhone.
"She'd moved on to a new relationship, and the guy was lovely, but she still compares the real relationship with the fake relationship," Whitty says. "She'd say, 'He really understood me and my boyfriend doesn't.'" One male victim told Whitty he'd have been willing to pay to continue the relationship -- knowing it was fake and with a man -- just to have that constant source of happiness back in his life again.
Beyond that, victims deal with their own shame and embarrassment over what they've done. Karen Hansen found that even the authorities she reported the fraud to weren't sympathetic. "The police station, they aren't very nice to you," she says. "They don't understand what you’ve been through." If victims do decide to tell their families, they risk humiliation. When Mary Wheaton told her family what happened, one of her brothers suggested she go on Dateline. "He wanted to have me publicly ridiculed," she says. "I don't talk to very many friends anymore. I don't really go to family functions."
When Professor Whitty attended a conference in Chicago last month to speak with the major dating sites -- Match.com, eHarmony, and Spark Networks among them -- for the first time, she was asked about scammers who are willing to emerge from the digital veil and meet in person. "It's a lot of work to meet face-to-face, but they're definitely coming out," Whitty says. "People must be cashing in on it, realizing there's another strategy."
Robert, a 50-year-old commodity broker from Manhattan, who declined to give his last name for this article, says a woman he met online and dated for several weeks scammed him, last spring. After he thought the two were committed, he gave her $3,000 to pay bills. "I remember when I gave her the check, I said, 'If I don’t see you next week, I'll know that you scammed me.'" He didn’t see her again. Instead, what he got were angry text messages when he wouldn't give her more money and later, an email from the predator that said, "we met on the internet, what did you expect?"
THE SERIAL PREDATOR?
Megan, who is 34, and works in medicine, and asked that her real name not be used for this article, believes she dated an actual conman, Andrew Funches, whom she met on Match.com. The two lived in different states -- she was on the West Coast and he said he lived in Minnesota -- but went on dates when he was in town for business. Megan described Funches as charming and as flattering as they come. She said he traveled frequently, wore expensive clothes, spent freely on dates, and never gave any sign that he'd ask her for money. After two visits, Megan says he made it seem like he was head over heels. "He started throwing around 'I miss you so much' and he told me that he loved me," she recalls. Not only that, Megan says his actions seemed to back up his words: the two usually spoke by phone several times a week, they texted more frequently than that, and when the holidays came around, she says Funches welcomed the chance to spend time with her family. "He was talking about living together, and we were going to get married someday," Megan says. Such promises, she admits, appealed to her romantic side. "I think I've always had a little bit of an optimistic view on love," she says. "I don't want to say fairytale, but yea, I think I used to idealize love." But two months in, Megan says, Funches came to her with a story of a $10,000 gambling debt that he owed to the mafia. Megan initially said she wouldn't lend him money, but a few weeks later he told her that if he didn't pay, they were going to shoot him. "I figured it was at the very least an exaggeration," she says. "But he would retell these stories, very detailed stories and experiences…It was very thought out." Megan says Funches tried to convince her to give him the money by saying he couldn't move cities to be with her until the debt was settled. She had doubts about his story, but managed to quiet them by considering the alternative. "Something didn't seem right," she explains. "But what I asked myself is: what if something did happen and you could have stopped it but you didn't?" Megan loaned Funches the money and drew up a promissory note and a payment plan that included interest charges and late fees for missing payments. "I was standing in line at that bank," she recalls, about to transfer the money, "and there was a tiny little place in my heart that was saying, 'Don't do it.'" She did it anyway. "I overrode that. I wanted to prove that [suspicion] wasn't true, that he was real," she says. Megan says Funches still came to visit her after the loan, and he even paid her a few hundred dollars. But not long after, he started dodging her phone calls. "I was sitting at home one night and something felt so off and I started searching and I found all these [online dating] profiles," Megan says. "I think there were six of them that I found that night." She hired a private investigator who put her in touch with another woman who was owed money by the same man. The two spent hours on the phone comparing notes. "This was a Lifetime movie," Megan says. "This isn’t what happens in real life and certainly not to me -- I'm not a stupid person. Naïve maybe, and certainly too trusting, but not stupid." Megan tried to get her money back by pretending for another six months that she hadn't uncovered Funches’ scam, but keeping up that charade was preventing her from moving on and getting over how devastated she felt. Emotionally spent, she gave up on getting her money back, closed her old email account, changed her cell number so he would stop asking her for money, and deleted any other evidence that Andrew Funches ever was part of her life. About a year later, Megan got a note from Funches' lawyer saying he'd declared bankruptcy and that she was one of his listed debtors. It's now been eight years since Megan dated Andrew Funches, but this past March, he resurfaced in her life in the form of a handwritten letter a woman sent to her. The story was the essentially the same: a name, a mob debt and a five-figure loan. Megan and her correspondent are members of an unusual club. They and at least 18 other women living in multiple states all began comparing notes and say that they have all been fleeced by the same man, who they say uses the names Andrew Funches, Ty Fortner, and other aliases. The victims say that Funches/Fortner lives in Chicago, is 41 years old, and claims that he works for an insurance company. Tamara White, now 50, has been trying to get her money back from Ty Fortner since 2008. She says she loaned him over $28,000, most of which was meant to cover his mob debts, and was forced to take him to court to try to recover her money. Another woman, who asked that her name be withheld, said in an email that she'd lost her house in a short sale and went into bankruptcy years ago. Had she not loaned Ty Fortner $20,000 when she was 25, she says she could have stayed afloat financially. Fortner's lawyer, a Chicago attorney named Richard Zito, declined to allow his client to be interviewed. But Zito says in an email that any claim that his client was a romantic predator or a con man is untrue. "Mr. Fortner was not running a "scam"; at most, he is guilty only of borrowing money from a girlfriend and failing to pay it back," Zito writes. Carrie, who is 29 and also asked that her name not be used, said she dated Fortner within the last year and borrowed $9,000 from an ex-boyfriend so she could pay off his debt and keep him from being killed. After connecting with another woman on Facebook who said Fortner scammed her, Carrie pieced together Fortner's history as a Lothario. Carrie says that she stayed in touch with Fortner until this past spring, hoping to get her money back. For several months she says he used the loan to control her by saying that if she came to his apartment, they could talk about paying her back the money. But when she would arrive, Fortner would tell her that she had to sleep with him first. Whenever Carrie went to see him she'd leave a note on her desk in her apartment for someone to open in case she didn't return. She wanted them to know that it would be Fortner who was responsible for her disappearance. Carrie gave up on getting her money back when she says Fortner threatened call the police to report her for harassment. "I just stopped contacting him, because there's no point," she says. Despite all of this, she says that when she first found out about Fortner's history she still wanted to marry him. "I was pretty stupid," Carrie says. She remembers that after learning about Fortner's troubled and troubling record with women, her first thought was to reassure him. "If you want to change, I will stay by your side," she recalls telling him.