Rise in 'Sweetheart Scams' breaks hearts and bank accounts
WASHINGTON (ABC7) - Every year in America, hundreds of millions of dollars are given to criminals, pretending to love the person whose bank account they're about to drain. They often assume the identities of real individuals to make their deception more believable.
Case in point: Airshow jet pilot, Pat Marsh. A rugged flyboy – unfazed by most everything, including traveling at the speed of sound.
But about a year ago, this maverick found his mailbox frequently filled with love letters - from women he didn't know - but who seemed to know him.
“I was getting cards and letters and phone calls,” said Marsh, “and I knew I had a serious problem."
A criminal, we'll call him "Fake Pat Marsh,” had stolen the real Pat Marsh's persona: name, address, birthday, background and profession, and was using it on dating websites to develop love relationships in which he'd eventually ask women for money.
Women like Pam Dodds, who communicated with "Fake Pat Marsh" for months, thinking she'd found someone to love.
“He was very sincere,” said Dodds. “There was a chemistry, a connection that was made.”
He sent photos to her, claiming them to be of himself. We have no way of knowing if the photos are, in fact, "Fake Pat Marsh."
There were thousands of exchanges by text and and even some phone calls, convincing Dodds she was the love of his life.
“It was the first time that I’ve opened my heart in six years, and he definitely just took advantage of it,” said Dodds.
But it wasn't just Pam Dodds being taken advantage of.
I sat with the real Pat Marsh at his kitchen table, covered with cards and letters and gifts from women he doesn’t know.
“We’ve got a dozen victims on this table,” said Marsh. “I know I’ve spoken or communicated with at least 50. There's gotta be 500 victims just with me."
For a year now, when the real Pat Marsh gets a card or gift from one of these unsuspecting victims, he sends it back, along with a letter, explaining they've been scammed and suggesting they contact the FBI.
“When you talk about scope, I think people see this crime as one individual behind a keyboard, victimizing one individual,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Nick Savage. “When in fact, we're talking about criminal enterprises. We're talking about organized crime that are committing these offenses.”
Savage says romance scams are the second-largest online crime in terms of monetary damages in the U.S., on track to hit $300 million this year.
“Most victims lose somewhere on average between $20,000 and $25,000,” said Savage.
Pam Dodds says "Fake Pat Marsh" was clearly working his way into her heart to get to her bank account.
“First it was $1,000, then he needed $12,000. And then he needed $37,000.”
He eventually convinced Dodds to wire $12,000 to him, to help complete a business deal, of which she would be a part.
“It was my life savings, it was everything,” said Dodds.
Lucky for her, the real Pat Marsh had given Dodds and her son-in-law a heads-up... just in the nick of time.
I asked her how close she was to losing her life savings.
“Probably minutes away from it,” said Dodds. “I called the bank and I said this is a scam. I want to recall the money.”
The bank froze the funds that were in the process of being transferred, and eventually restored the money to Dodds’ account.
We spoke with about a dozen women who, if not for the real Pat Marsh, might have become victims of "Fake Pat Marsh." Ph. D’s, teachers, attorneys — they all told the same story.
“Most individuals being trusting, it's not as ridiculous as it seems,” said Savage. “Intelligence has nothing to do with this. It's Need. Driven. Behavior. And that's what sets this apart from all other crimes.”
Savage says women over 40 are prime targets – with those in their 50’s and 60’s being most vulnerable.
“I think we just need to let the women know that if this happens to them they need to come forward,” said Dodds. “It's embarrassing. It's really embarrassing to be taken advantage of. But when you open your heart to someone, that's where you kind of get blindsided. You don't' really see things clearly. You can't step back."
As for the real Pat Marsh, he hasn't only sent letters to the women - he's also sent them to the dating sites - including "Our Time" where many of these women reported meeting "Fake Pat Marsh." He says he's communicated all the details of this crime but has yet to receive a satisfactory response.
“I sent these sites emails,” said Marsh. “I laid it out for them: ‘Somebody’s using my identity on your website to meet and scam women. You need to remove them.’ They all just ignored it.”
Marsh says he believes the dating sites should bear some responsibility.
“I think 50 percent of the problem is these dating websites that don’t police their own, and they have no excuse,” said Marsh. “I hope some of these women hire lawyers and sue the crap out of them for it. Especially if they lost money.”
7 On Your Side reached out to Our Time, the “over 50” dating website on which many of the victims reported meeting Fake Pat Marsh. The parent company, Match.com, did not respond to our questions or to our request for an interview.
If you believe you have been the victim of a romance scam, the FBI wants to hear from you. Savage says the best way for them to apprehend these criminals is with the help of victims who file on their Internet Crimes Complaint site. You can fill out a report here.