SPARTANBURG, S.C. (WSPA) – The most costly scam in America is now fueled by a pandemic that’s making it even more effective. We’re talking about romance scams that fooled Americans out of $201 million last year alone, according to the FTC.
The agency says even before COVID 19 hit, they saw a 40 percent spike and now scammers have an even more convincing edge.
Judy Vaughn in Anderson County just isn’t ready to delete the photos from her cell. And she’s saved every message since a man named James Hackett met her online three years ago.
“We would talk every day, half the night. He was always there to talk to me,” she said.
Vaugh admits his kind words filled a hole left by the death of her husband of 38 years.
The two exchanged intimate details about their lives as this Anderson grandmother on disability learned Hackett was divorced and serving overseas. Vaughn says about a year into their online relationship he told her he wanted to start a life with her if only she could pay for his leave, $4,500.
“My daughter-in-law took me to the library and she looked him up on the computer and it came up that he was a scammer, and that was right at the beginning and I didn’t believe her. I believed him over her. I was crazy,” she said.
Over the next two years Vaughn continued to honor his requests for money even as the total climbed to $10,000.
“I said, I know not to send this money. And then, you gonna send it anyway. I don’t know why, you just send it. But I wouldn’t do it now.”
Not now, because his lies were catching up and Vaughn sought the help of SocialCatfish.com to figure out who he really was.
The company tracked the photos of the man who called himself James Hackett to a real dog trainer in Russia whose identity was stolen.
“We’ve seen an increase across the board of images being stolen from people, and people being contacted by scammers,” said David McClellan, the President of SocialCatfish.
He warns romance scams are on the rise during the pandemic as more are forced online and scammers have a better excuse not to meet in person.
He says many of the con artists live across the world in Nigeria.
One scammer from Lagos agreed to talk to us.
“I’m not just scamming for just the money, I’m scamming for survival,” said a man who calls himself Khelly.
“A friend of mine introduced me to another way of getting money from white people. So I asked him to teach me, I mean I had no choice,” he told us.
Khelly says they target people online who are widowed or divorced.
“We open a dating site and look for a picture of a divorcee on Instagram.”
The scammer confirmed they use a playbook of sorts. SocialCatfish showed us one they obtained that teaches other scammers how to fool westerners, telling them exactly what to say to lure them in.
“These scammers are changing their IP address to say they really are from the US when they create these Facebook profiles or these scammers are buying seasoned Facebook pages, meaning they’re buying pages that were started 8 years ago, and they’re creating these profiles so that when Facebook has their allgorythms and all these different things, they have their gaurd down,” said McClellan
Vaughn takes responsibility, too. But the saying goes, “the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t know” and she’s just not ready to say goodbye.
“Yeah, it’s hard, and it would be hard for anybody. They just need to be careful and not accept them friend requests and don’t get as involved like me. You know I did it for 3 years and the longer you talk the more you care.”