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Romance fraud: Online scam artist manipulates Edmonton woman into parting with $250,000

Wichmann complied to the best of her ability, sending a total of $250,000 she acquired by pawning her possessions, taking out loans, and maxing out credit cards. After the transfer, he then shockingly disappeared.
Dylan Gibbons Montreal, QC

62-year-old widow Evelyn Wichmann has regrettably been scammed out of a small fortune in what’s commonly referred to as “romance fraud.”

Wichmann says that she had been getting progressively lonely since her husband died three years prior.

Having suffered many hardships besides solitude, including a heart attack and a stroke, she did what many lonely singles do in the absence of a lively community: she made an online dating profile and cast her line into the sea. And someone bit! Only it wasn’t what she thought it would be.

The man simply being described by Wichmann as 56-years-old with a handsome face, quickly gained Wichmann’s trust through a series of online interactions and phone calls, claiming to be an Albertan living in the U.S., but planning to return for an extended stay.

That is, until things took a dramatic turn for the worst.

Having effectively enamoured Wichmann using basic pickup artist tactics and carefully crafted scripts, Wichmann’s new love interest gained her trust. Eventually the unnamed scammer claimed that he had been wrongfully detained in a Turkish prison during a work trip — which Wichmann had already supposedly paid for — to oversee the building of a charity hospital, and that urgent financial help was needed if he was going to return to marry the widow.

Wichmann complied to the best of her ability, sending a total of $250,000 she acquired by pawning her possessions, taking out loans, and maxing out credit cards. After the transfer, he then shockingly disappeared.

Wichmann now says she plans on selling her bungalow to pay off the debts.

According to Linda Herczeg, an Edmonton police detective in the economic crimes section, what happened to Wichmann is becoming more common, having seen many people duped for anywhere between $10,000 to $300,000.

She explains that everything, from the moment they contact you, is carefully thought out and boiled down to a set of daily scripts to be recited over months, slowly lulling you into believing the person on the other side of the screen is reciprocating genuine compassion.

“They go out of their way to make you feel important and special,” Herczeg said. “They profile you from the very beginning.

“It’s all about the money. There is no emotional connection. It’s strictly scripts and it’s around the clock.”

Herczeg went on to explain that several romance-fraud organizations have begun springing up, going so far as to send actors to further the fiction along as they make a killing off false promises of affection.

“According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, romance scams are the costliest kind of fraud in Canada, with more than $22 million in reported losses in 2018,” reports CBC News’s Wallis Snowdon.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre defines romance scams as follows:

Scammers steal photos and use dating sites and social media to lure potential victims into sending money for various reasons. The scammer will gain the trust of the victim through displays of affection and will communicate via phone, skype and email for months, if needed to build trust. The scammer will often claim to be working abroad, usually in a lucrative business venture. Eventually the scammer will want to meet with the victim in person. It is at this time that the scammer will inform them that they cannot afford to travel and will ask for money to cover travel costs. Another variation involves the scammer claiming that there is a medical emergency with a sick family member. They will then ask for money to cover medical expenses.

All parts of this definition are consistent with what happened to Wichmann and are part of the broader market of scamming people, elderly people with less online knowledge, out of millions of dollars every year.

According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), “Fraudsters target the elderly, as they may be lonely, willing to listen and are more trusting than younger individuals.”

“Many fraud schemes against the elderly are performed over the telephone, door-to-door or through advertisements,” explains the ACFE. “The elderly are prime targets to schemes attributed to credit cards, sweepstakes or contests, charities, health products, magazines, home improvements, equity skimming, investments, banking or wire transfers, and insurance.”

In other words, the elderly are the main targets of nearly everything you could possibly be scammed for.

According to the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s Investor Education Foundation, people over 65 are 34 percent more likely to be the victims of scams compared to people in their 40s, reports CNBC.

In addition, according to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine nearly 1 in 20 elderly respondents out of a sample size of 4,156 said that they were the victims of some sort of financial exploitation, many of whom were afraid to confess to family members for fear of condemnation.

However, elderly people living with a spouse/partner were found to be significantly less likely to be scammed.

“Financial exploitation of older adults is a common and serious problem. Elders from groups traditionally considered to be economically, medically, and socio-demographically vulnerable are more likely to self-report financial exploitation,” the researchers concluded

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Dylan Gibbons
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