During the pandemic lockdown, many people have become lonely and vulnerable, leading to a rise in online sweetheart scams. But when a stranger reached out to Patti Gouff on Instagram, her instincts told her the would-be Romeo was just too good to be true.
For five weeks, Gouff recorded her conversations with a man who said he's falling in love. He charmed her with photos, a teddy bear with the message “for someone special” and messages that got more intimate.
“I'm dreaming of you babe, tonight, till tomorrow and for all of my life,” one message said.
He even sent her a photo of an engagement ring he said he wanted to give her. The man said his name was Johnson Pence, a widower from North Carolina and a civil engineer. He sent her a photo ID and to prove he was well off, a $15 million oil drilling contract he claims he's about to sign with Exxonmobil.
There were times Gouff says she actually wondered if this seemingly perfect Mr. Right was "the one.”
“You are thinking, maybe it's true,” Gouff said.
And then came the big ask—a $5,000 loan.
These sweetheart swindles are not at all far-fetched. Authorities say thousands of women are falling for it, especially during the pandemic, when so many are feeling isolated, alone and in some areas, under lockdown.
“Each year hundreds of millions of dollars are lost by victims to these scams. We’re talking tens of thousands of people every year falling prey to these scams,” said Steven Merrill of the FBI’s Financial Crime Section.
So who was that handsome guy who said he was in love with Gouff? The picture belonged to Michigan-based therapist Joe Kort, who had no idea his photo was being used.
“I have never sent pictures to women telling them I am in love with them or that I ever wanted to marry them,” Kort told Inside Edition.
Like Gouff, Kort was also a victim of the sweetheart swindle machine. In Kort’s case, the scammer swiped his image right off social media. Inside Edition introduced the two through video chat.
“Has this happened a lot to you?” Gouff asked.
“There has to be 30 or 40 women and it definitely increased during COVID,” Kort said.
Gouff then confronted her real scammer.
“You are a fake, you are a fraud. You are not who you said that you were,” she told the man.
“I don't understand sunshine,” he responded. “I am in New York.”
“You are not in New York. Where are you at? What country?” Gouff said.
The scammer finally fessed up. “I'm in Nigeria, sunshine,” he said. The scammer does live in Nigeria and sent videos of his life there.
“I can see why women fall for these gentlemen because they tell a woman everything they want to hear,” Gouff said.
Experts say if someone reaches out to you online, always request a video chat, so you can verify their identity. If you want more information about these scams or want to file a complaint, the FBI encourages you to visit the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.