Victims of scam artists frequently find themselves in financial distress. Our office has represented dozens of innocent scam victims who liquidated assets, and then after their assets were expended, began borrowing money in the futile hope that the con artist’s promises would be realized. These scams have included international lottery scams, threats of outstanding criminal warrants, as well as legal/financial emergencies of relatives traveling abroad. LOTTERY SCAMS Unfortunately, the majority of the scam victims are elderly, and many are too embarrassed to seek help until it is too late.

The widespread availability of social media and increase in users has allowed online scammers to pursue a new con strategy, commonly referred to as the “romance scam”. The targets are primarily single men or women, who are either recently widowed or divorced. Because obituaries and legal notices are published in most newspapers, it is very easy for an on-line scammer to identify a likely target. The scammer will post a fake profile on multiple dating sites, seeking to identify susceptible targets. They almost always claim to be living internationally, outside of the United States, and will quickly begin requesting money for necessities, emergencies, or for their “promised” travel to the United States to meet their romantic victim.  The FBI has posted a notice describing the scam in more detail, which may be found at this link:

In our experience, the scammers quickly established trust with the victim and use false promises to make small requests for money, which eventually become larger and larger. The more money that they request, the more urgent that they claim is the need for the additional funds. Usually, the victim will first take money out of savings or tax-exempt retirement plans, until they have exhausted those assets. ASSETS THAT YOU CAN PROTECT IN BANKRUPTCY   When they have built up sufficient trust, they may even request to have bank account authorization so that the scammed funds can be withdrawn directly from the bank account.  The romance scammer will then encourage them to borrow against their home or vehicle, if possible, in order to obtain more funds that can then be transferred to the scammer. The romance scammers may also encourage the target to open up credit card accounts and make cash advances from those accounts directly to the scammer. Once the romance scammer has depleted their financial assets, and ruined their credit, they will cut off communications since the victim is no longer a source of funds.  It is only then that the unfortunate target realizes that they have been sadly.

Because part of the scam involves isolating the target from family members and close friends, those persons are unavailable to step in and assist until it is too late. In fact, in some instances the target may have also borrowed money from friends and family members which was then transferred to the con artist. The extent of the scam is not discovered by a family member until they inadvertently answer a collection call or find out that the target has been served with a lawsuit. As a family member who is seeking to help someone who has fallen victim to such a scam, it is important to realize the shame and embarrassment at the victim feels. The con artists who perpetuate the scams are very intelligent, sophisticated, and ruthless. They have honed their tactics over time, and we have seen firsthand that even the most financially astute people can become their victims.

If you have a parent or other family member who is elderly, and potentially at risk from such a scam because of geographic isolation or loneliness, there are steps that you can take to protect them.  ELDER ABUSE CAN LEAD TO BANKRUPTCY  You can request to be added to their bank accounts, so that you have the ability to monitor any questionable transactions. You may also want to have a power of attorney executed in the event that the family member may be at risk of exploitation. Finally, pay attention to any change in their habits such as sudden secretiveness, lack of communication, or other new changes in behavior which are not characteristic of the family member.

If you discover that a parent or other family member has been the victim of a romance scam, the first step will be to report it to the authorities. Unfortunately, almost all of these scams originate outside of the United States, so the chances of any penalties or money recovery is virtually impossible. But if your family member has accumulated debt well above their ability to repay it, it would be wise to seek a bankruptcy consultation. And Leiden and Leiden, we offer a free initial bankruptcy consultation and we understand the embarrassment of the victim and the frustration of the family members who have been affected by such an evil and unconscionable act.  WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN VISITING A BANKRUPTCY ATTORNEY