Scammed in the name of love: Seniors are targeted online

As seniors adjust to new technology, they are prey in a new way to thieves who hunt on dating websites

Scamming seniors isn't new, as Frank Capra's 1944 movie version of "Arsenic and Old Lace'' can attest. Both the original play and the movie are based on real crimes against seniors committed in the early 20th century. From left, actors Edward Horton, Josephine Hulll and Jean Adair.
Courtesy Everett Collection

Neal Zipser's father is in love, but he isn't happy about his father's romance. That's because his dad, an 80-year-old who came into some considerable money in the 1980s, has spent over half a million dollars on his new girlfriend.

What's more, Zipser's father has never met his own girlfriend.

"It started when he got an email from a lady in Ghana. She sent a photo and said she was 37-year-old nurse who could take care of him in his old age, and they basically started an online dialogue," said Zipser, who works two jobs in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

His father — who lives near Detroit and whose name Zipser wants to keep private — became a widower last April after his 78-year-old wife of 54 years died after a battle with Alzheimer's. Zipser's father joined some online dating services, which is how the email relationship began. Soon there were requests for money, including $50,000 to pay for his girlfriend's mother's heart surgery and a $25,000 payment to invest in a new business opportunity.

Zipser isn't even sure his father's girlfriend is female.

He isn't worried about his father's spending his inheritance. That's because there isn't any. He and his two brothers were written out of their father's will years ago for marrying out of their Jewish faith. Zipser is worried because his dad was talking about flying to Ghana to meet his romantic interest, and he doesn't want his aging father risking his safety by traveling abroad and probably into the hands of con men.

'Arsenic and Old Lace'

Seniors being scammed out of money in the name of love isn't a new problem. For instance, from 1907 to 1917, Amy Archer-Gilligan of Windsor, Conn., gained infamy for poisoning residents of a nursing home after taking large sums of their money; her story inspired the play "Arsenic and Old Lace."

But as life expectancy increases, family units fracture and technology adapts — think of the popularity of online matchmaking sites — it has become increasingly easier for senior citizens to meet Mr. or Ms. Wrong.

"I see it a lot," said Geoff Scott, who is based in Toledo, Ohio, and runs Friends of the Family Home Health Care, which has five offices in Ohio and Michigan. He also has a nationally syndicated radio show, Senior Moments, where he goes by the moniker the Senior Bodyguard.

Scott said that he recently had an 81-year-old gentleman call his radio show. "He met a lady through a dating site, and they started dating, and she became his caregiver. Almost a year later, he found out she had written $80,000 in checks out of his account and drained him of all his money," Scott said.

"Since she had a younger child, he refused to press charges because he said she needed to be at home to raise her kid."

Scott, who was concerned and spoke to the 81-year-old on a few occasions, thinks the kid was another con, an excuse she used to play on the senior's emotions.

"She knew how to push his buttons," he said.

A bad combination

Steven J.J. Weisman founded a website that explores different scams in the digital age.
courtesy of Steven J.J. Weisman

"Seniors are particularly vulnerable for a lot of reasons," said Steven J.J. Weisman, author of "50 Ways to Protect Your Identity in a Digital Age" and founder of, which offers information on scams, fraud and identity theft.

"They're lonely, and they're targeted because many of them have some wealth," he said. "As the old joke goes, why does a bank robber rob banks? Because that's where the money is. Same goes with seniors."

After a senior realizes he or she has been taken to the cleaners, Weisman continued, "they're embarrassed, humiliated, and to them, it's often one more indication that they aren't as sharp as they once were, even though anybody can be scammed."

Men and women are equally susceptible to being scammed, he said. The Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint project of the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, found that 29% of people targeted in romance scams were women 50 or older — "and they accounted for more than 51 percent of the financial losses of all romance scams," Weisman said.

He added that seniors are sometimes ripped off by their own family members, so they need to have a few core people they can really trust.

Sitting ducks

Financial adviser Kathy Boyle has been helping an elderly client who was bilked by a woman who called herself Vanessa.
courtesy of Kathy Boyle

Which is why some seniors, those without family, are sitting ducks. Kathy Boyle, president of Chapin Hill Advisors, a financial-advisory and wealth-management firm in New York City, has one such client, an 86-year-old man, "J," whom she can't name for confidentiality reasons.

Boyle said J is a World War II vet who was subjected to radiation poisoning and now has a host of health issues, including lip cancer and a nose operation that went awry, leaving him with a gaping hole where his nose used to be. A widower, he walks hunched over and with a cane and displays what she believes are early signs of early dementia.

Save for a few scattered relatives who never visit, "he is completely alone in the world," she said. That is, except for one woman who lives nearby. In the time J has known her, his female acquaintance has bilked at least $15,000 from him, Boyle said.

Throughout the year, J would call Chapin Hill, asking for several thousand dollars from his savings, each time so he could give it to his friend. Boyle, who has had J as a client since 1988, heard a variety of reasons, including that she was opening a store and that she needed a "lady operation."

As his financial adviser, Boyle couldn't deny J the money, and as she watched her client's $65,000 savings shrink to $50,000, Boyle became more involved, spending hours at her client's house — for free — trying to help him organize his piles of unpaid bills and clean up his rent-controlled apartment.

After learning that J's lady friend had accompanied him to the bank and cleaned out his account in September, Boyle contacted NYC's Special Victims Unit and said they would be talking to J soon. She also brought in an elder-care service to handle J's bills, which should help prevent money from going to so-called romantic interests.

But Zipser hasn't had any sort of happy ending or resolution yet. His father has given up on flying out to Ghana, said Zipser, but "instead of trying to go there, he's tried to get her to come here."

But since his father began suggesting his girlfriend come to see him and sent money for air fare, Zipser said, "she has been taken hostage three times, and another time, she was shot on the way to the airport."

That means, of course, Zipser's father has sent money to the hostage takers three times, and then he had to send money for her medical care from the gunshot wound.

"So the bad news is, he's still being scammed," Zipser said. "But the good news is that he hasn't gone to Ghana."

Fortunately, the red flags are pretty easy for a concerned son or daughter to spot, said Weisman. "You look for certain scenarios like, 'How does someone become so enamored with your parent so fast?' And then, of course, if they suddenly have a need for money."

He also said that if a photo looks too professional, that might be a giveaway. Some scammers, he said, use photos taken by modeling agencies.

These type of situations are far too common, Boyle said. "It's very sad. There are a lot of people like this, shut-ins who are totally at risk for this sort of thing, because they're lonely."

Boyle's client has seen less of his female friend of late. Seemingly frightened off, she hasn't dropped by for the last couple months, and J has been calling Boyle more.

"He called my voice mail Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Boyle said.

The message: "Kathy, I'm lonely. Please give me a call and just talk to me."

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