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Tipline Investigation: Protect yourself and loved ones from Romance Scams and Money Mules

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Heartbreaking scams that target senior citizens in our community are on the rise during the pandemic. The crooks don’t stop at pilfering bank accounts, they plunder the victims heart as well.

Some law enforcement call it the Romance Scam. Technically, that’s what it is but the name doesn’t convey the amount of destruction it causes to the victims and their families and sadly the horrible people who commit these crimes are rarely caught. 

Many senior citizens are turning to dating websites as the pandemic drags on. They’re lonely and looking for companionship even if it’s through a keyboard and that makes them a perfect target.

“Those fraudsters, those thieves, those scammers are upping their game and finding new ways to steal,” said Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley.

Dudley is on a mission to stop them. However, since the crooks are most likely operating outside the U.S. the only way she can fight back is by warning people. She said the crooks could be anywhere in the world, but the people they are victimizing live in our community.

“We’re talking about good educated people who are overwhelmed by loneliness and they just get caught up in it,” said Dudley.

Here’s how the scam works. The victim meets someone on a dating website and the scammer slowly and methodically reels them in using empathy, sympathy and friendship. Dudley compares it to fishing.

“Their victim is completely hooked at this point and giving them things like Social Security Number, their personal address, access to their bank account, sending checks, wiring them money and going to Venmo,” said Dudley.

At some point, the victim runs out of money, that’s when the victim becomes a ‘Money Mule” for the crooks.

“And the person says, ‘That’s okay honey, I love you. Let’s work together to have your friends help us. So why don’t I use your bank account, why don’t you call this person, why don’t you reach out to your kids, invade your trust,” said Dudley.

Only when the money till runs dry does the victim start to see clearly about what's happened over the last few months and how much damage was done.

“It’s only in retrospect when the people realize, ‘Oh my god, what did I do?’ I guarantee you right now some of the people who are watching this show will get a phone call, get a connection, hear a story and say, ‘Wait a minute that could be a scammer,’” said Dudley.

Dudley also said it's important for adult children to talk with their parents about this scam or any solicitations their parents may be getting. Don't be afraid to ask questions and contact law enforcement.

The NewsChannel wanted to talk with a local victim for this story because if anyone can describe how horrible and subtle this scam is, they can. However, victims in cases like these are often too embarrassed to talk publicly and suffer in silence.

If you suspect yourself or someone you know may be a victim of a romance scam please call the Santa Barbara County Victim Witness Hotline at 805-568-2400 or Vicky Johnson at the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office at 805-568-2300. We've also included the following links to help answer any questions you might have about this type of crime.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation - FBI

Fair Trade Commission

California / Community / Crime / NewsChannel 3 Investigates / Safe at Home / San Luis Obispo County / Santa Barbara - South County / Santa Maria - Lompoc - North County / Ventura County / Your Money
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C.J. Ward

C.J. Ward is the evening anchor for KEYT NewsChannel 3 and the station’s lead investigative reporter. To learn more about C.J., click here

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