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Digital scams in Texas soar amid pandemic isolation and loneliness

Chron logo Chron 9/21/2022 Dan Carson

The conversation should've ended after the first two words, says Yvonne Harlan.

"He said 'Hello beautiful,'" she recalls. "That's the number-one red flag."

The message was the first of a series of warning signs Harlan now sees clearly when she looks back on her relationship with the man she knew as Robert Bruno, a romance scammer posing on Tinder as a Dallas-based construction manager with projects around the world. After four weeks of phone calls, grand gestures and circuitous attempts to access her personal and financial information, Bruno disappeared into thin air, leaving Harlan, a 68-year-old paralegal living in LaPorte, Texas, embarrassed, heartbroken and angry. "It seemed real," Harlan says. 

Harlan is just one victim of a booming and borderless economy of digital scamming that siphons billions of dollars every year from low and middle-income Americans and has grown almost exponentially in the years following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data recorded by the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center. These figures, as compiled by Social Catfish, a company that specializes in preventing online scams through reverse search technology, show Americans lost a record $6.9 billion to online scams in 2021—nearly double the $3.5 billion lost to digital con artists in 2019. Among the most-scammed states in 2021 was Texas, which recorded the second-most instances of successful online fraud with more than 40,000 victims reporting losses totaling more than $606 million—an average of $14,732 each.

David McClellan, founder of Social Catfish, attributes the surge of online fraud to advances in technology, growing isolation brought about by the pandemic and increasing availability of internet services around the world.

"Scammers evolve," McClellan says. "We all make fun of the Nigerian prince days. This is an evolution."

As new scams emerge, those perpetrating them have continued to specialize and develop their ploys, leading to what McClellan describes as a delineation of scams by region. Romance scams tend to originate in Nigeria and South Africa, while call scams are often traced back to India. What McClellan and Harlan both stress is that these frauds are usually perpetrated by groups of individuals working together and using a playbook of tactics built up over the years detailing the most effective ways to deceive and manage their victims.

"They’re very good at it," Harlan says. "They know who to target. It’s like an algorithm. 'If you meet resistance here, try this.'"

Harlan says Bruno, the scammer who approached her on Tinder, tailored his persona to pique her specific interests. 

"He had a white '61 T-Bird," Harlan says, recalling the photos he sent her. "I’m a real classic car girl. That's his '61 T-Bird, Mabel."

She would later find out the images she'd received had been stolen from the Instagram account of a man living in California. The man was a model and public relations specialist who posted frequent snapshots of his day-to-day life—an ideal source of raw material for a scammer looking to construct a convincing mirage of a real person going about their day.

"They’ll rip everything from people on IG with lots of photos and content," McClellan says. "In the future, we could see DeepFake training based on Instagram images."

McLellans says a key point of leverage for romance scammers is their victims' need for connection. In Harlan's case, she was living alone and had been working remotely for more than a year when loneliness drove her to create the Tinder account that brought Bruno into her life. A decade removed from a contentious divorce and nearing 70, she'd sworn off dating and resigned herself to the possibility that her window for finding love had passed. In July 2021, she moved from her home in Houston to LaPorte to be closer to her adult son, but the new scenery and closer proximity to family didn't change the sensation that she was passing most days in frictionless solitude, she says, falling further and further away from meaningful human connections.

"After the age of 60, women are invisible," Harlan says. "I could be gone for weeks without people noticing me except for work. I think people [during the pandemic] felt invisible, like they don’t matter. There’s no connection."

The tipping point came in September of 2021, when Harlan, fed up with isolation, responded to Bruno. She looked past his awkward syntax and focused on his compliments and interest. Their communication quickly shifted to emails and telephone calls, and the two began communicating daily. Bruno told her about his job, his cheating ex-wife, and his estranged relationship with his brother. He spoke with an accent, explaining his family was from Italy. He sent Harlan flowers from a florist shop in the Houston Heights along with handwritten notes professing his love for her—messages she now calls "love bombs."

"You took my loneliness away," read a card attached to one flower delivery. "You changed my life. I stopped searching because I have found all I am looking for. I am happy I have found you, and I won't trade you for the world or anything."

Much of their communication was like this, Harlan says—professions of love, daily check-ins, patter about work. Sometimes their chats were boring, but he was sweet and, most importantly, someone to talk to. The only time Harlan saw a change in Bruno's demeanor was when she told him she'd mentioned their relationship in passing to a friend. 

"[Bruno] got really upset when I told him I’d mentioned him to my friend," Harlan remembers. "They try to isolate you...they say 'No one will understand our relationship.'"

Harlan says her friend Louis, a rich and "unconventional" man, had been acting as her dating coach and warned her about Bruno after she filled him in on some of the details of their relationship. "He said 'That’s a scam, Yvonne,'" Harlan says. "I told him 'Louis, I want to talk to him.'"

Her friend's warning, while unwanted at the time, planted a seed of doubt in Yvonne's mind. She'd begun to pick up on peculiarities and inconsistencies in Bruno's behavior—his business concerns suddenly extending to Turkey, his North Carolina phone number, how he avoided giving specific details about where he lived or the name of his company. Their last conversation occurred on a weekday morning when Bruno contacted her asking if she would help him purchase computers for one of his work sites overseas.

There'd been an explosion, he said, and he needed her help completing a transaction to replace destroyed equipment.

"He said 'I need you to complete this ID.me," Harlans says, referring to a secure digital wallet used by social security recipients to verify their identities and manage their government benefits and services. "I knew the next step after that was he was either going to ask me for my bank account information...I said 'This is a scam, and I'm not talking to you anymore.'"

Harlan counts herself lucky to have emerged from her encounter without losing money or her identity, but the rush of powerful emotions followed by the pain of being emotionally manipulated will remain with her for the rest of her life. 

"I'll never date again," she says. "I fell in love with the guy. I'm ashamed of it...you begin to ask, 'What is love?'"

In the coming years, victims like Harlan are likely to be joined by a new, younger generation of digitally native targets as online frauds continue to evolve. From 2017 to 2021, scams trained on victims under the age of 20 increased by 1,126 percent—the largest jump among all age groups, according to FBI data. McClellan, the Social Catfish founder, says scammers see this new cohort of digitally savvy young people as a market ripe for exploitation due in large part to their confidence in engaging with strangers online and lack of parental oversight in their early Internet usage. 

"[Scammers] realized everyone is susceptible to this, and tech advances are making it worse," McClellan says. "It's gonna grow."

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