Illustration by: Nazario Graziano | Original Photographs, Man: Image Source/Getty Images; Woman: Jose Luis Peleaz—Getty Images
The call came the day before Thanksgiving 2015.
In between prepping the turkey and picking up last-minute necessities for the annual family feast—the first without her husband of 47 years—a widow in Kingston, N.Y., picked up the phone. On the other end was a fraud analyst for TD Bank.
A wire transfer the widow had made—$203,000, sent earlier that month to a new friend she had met through Match.com—had been flagged as a fraudulent transaction. (The woman, who spoke with MONEY and shared legal documents related to her case, asked that her name be withheld to preserve her privacy.) At first, the 75-year-old tried to explain that the call was an error, but it soon became apparent that this was no mistake.
It felt like a physical punch to the gut, she says. And yet, as everyone sat down onto the table on Thanksgiving, she kept the news, and her rising panic, to herself. What she didn't yet comprehend was that the situation was not merely a theft of $200,000. Her total losses, at that point, actually exceeded $1 million.
The worst part? She had allowed the swindle to happen. Like a number of seniors, she had been targeted—in her case, successfully—by an unscrupulous fraudster who posed as a friend in order to steal her life savings.
Unfortunately, such situations are more common than you think. Losses from elder financial fraud and abuse have been estimated to be more than $36 billion a year, according to a 2015 report by True Link Financial. In Virginia alone—where the state's Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services has conducted the most recent comprehensive study looking at the trend—financial exploitation robs victims of an estimated $1.2 billion a year.
Yet many of these crimes go unreported, or under-reported—largely for the same reason that the widow in this case didn't want to divulge her name. Unlike so many other crimes, financial exploitation often stems from personal relationships, and many victims feel embarrassed and guilty at having been taken in. Indeed, only one in 44 cases of financial abuse is ever reported, according to an estimate by the National Adult Protective Services Association.
The widow's case started shortly after she joined the dating site Match.com. Her late husband, an electrical engineer who worked for 42 years with IBM, had died in December 2014 after a six-month medical ordeal, in which torn tendons in his leg kicked off a series of complications that kept him in the hospital until the very end. And the widow—a retired nurse—soon found herself in a health battle of her own. The month after the funeral, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. A course of radiation and constant appointments left her exhausted, and a bit defeated.
So by summer, when a friend suggested the dating site as a way to take her mind off the tumult of the preceding year, she was more than ready for some entertainment. While she was not at all ready for anything "hot and heavy," the widow says, she wanted to rejoin the world—to see what was out there.
What she found in September was a man who called himself Edward Duffey, who entered her life after he "liked" her photo on Match.com. Conversations started small, sharing basic information. He told her that he was younger, and a widower—that his wife had died of cancer two years prior. He was a retired accountant who was raised in England, living now in Texas, he said. She revealed that she had three kids and was trying to learn how to handle home repairs.
They hit it off, and the relationship moved quickly from Match.com messages to daily calls and texts. While they never met in person, she says, Duffey's missives were sweet, and filled with poetry. And while she's not a big poetry fan, she enjoyed the attention. Soon he told her that he loved her. Flattered, she took it as a compliment that a man 10 years her junior would be interested in her.
There was one early sign that something was amiss. After he had claimed that he worked with a Christian youth group in Texas, she called the church he referenced—but neither the receptionist nor the local priest had heard of him. When she confronted Duffey about it, however, he turned it back on her, saying she didn't trust him and that it was a big church.
At the same time, Duffey was offering a sympathetic ear. The widow was still learning to live on her own and sifting through all the paperwork and financial documents—a daunting task for her.
As was (and still is) true for many couples of their age, her husband had taken care of all the financial aspects of their life together. She knew they had some IRAs and some IBM stock from her husband; there was also a financial advisor through Schwab—but she had never met the man. Every once in a while, she says, her husband would say she should learn some of it, but then something would come up and they'd put if off. When her husband got sick, he showed her how to access their bank account online—but that was all they managed before he died.
So, later in October, when Duffey told her that he might be able to help her with her finances, she jumped at the chance. She told Duffey that she knew her husband had valuable IBM stock, but wasn't sure the extent of it. He told her that he managed finances for friends, and assured her that he could make her more money.
While she was comfortably situated, the idea of getting better investment returns piqued her interest—it sounded like something nice she could do for her kids and grandchildren. On Duffey's advice, she began liquidating her assets, with the intent to pool all of her savings under his care.
When she went to make the initial wire transfer—the first one she'd ever sent—into the TD Bank account specified by Duffey, she followed his instructions to the letter. When she went into her local Bank of America, the teller questioned her reasons for processing the transfer. But she stuck to what Duffey told her to say: that it was for a family matter.
She then set about liquidating the funds from her Charles Schwab account. She called her advisor, who said selling the IBM stock that was in the account wasn't a good idea. He suggested they meet to discuss the decision, but they were never able to get together.
In the meantime, Duffey—never a big phone talker—texted to say he was heading to London to visit his daughter and his grandson, who was ill. He suggested she wire the rest of the funds to his London-based HSBC account, she says. So she called Schwab's 1-800-number and had a call center employee based in Colorado initiate the transfer of almost $873,000—which she wired to Duffey in two installments.
About three weeks later, the alarm bells at TD went off, prompting the phone call from the fraud department—but by then, she had sent Duffey about $1.1 million to invest. She didn't really believe she'd been victimized, she says, until the analyst told her that a woman had picked up the transfer. As she looked back at their whirlwind relationship, however, she remembered that call to the church in Texas—and realized she'd long been ignoring a niggling suspicion in the pit of her stomach.
By the time she hung up with the fraud analyst, she knew there was a good chance she'd been swindled. And her immediate reaction was anger. She texted Duffey, asking how he could "do this." Duffey called her back right away—and, as usual, had an answer for everything. He denied that there was anything untoward going on, saying her money was safe in England, and scolded her for doubting him.
Duffey's adamant denials made her question whether TD was right, and calmed her down enough to get through the Thanksgiving weekend without immediately going to the police. But she had begun to question her own judgment. When she confided the situation to a friend who was visiting for the weekend, the friend strongly recommended speaking to her bank and filing a police report.
After she filed a report, she found she wasn't alone. Duffey was actually an alias for Ken Ejimofor Ezeah, a 33-year-old living in Houston—and dozens of women all over the country had contacted authorities throughout 2015, relating similar stories. A man posing as Duffey had apparently been working across several dating sites, including Match.com, ChristianMingle.com, TalkMatch.com and others, according to court documents. FBI agents in Oklahoma investigated the claims and arrested Ezeah and an accomplice in January 2016.
Following the arrests, the U.S. Attorney's office in Oklahoma indicted Ezeah and reached a plea agreement with him in February of this year. While he hasn't yet been sentenced, the charge he pled guilty to, wire fraud, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
But while authorities have caught up to Ezeah, it isn't clear whether the widow will ever see a penny of her money. The incident cut her monthly income in half and drastically increased her tax bill last year, because of the capital gains she incurred. She's also hesitant to invest what remains, fearing that additional bad financial advice will decimate what is left of her savings.
Just as important are the lingering emotional scars. She spent six months seeing a therapist, trying to come to terms with her sense of betrayal and blame. The fraud has also cut her off from many of her friends, who have no idea what she's been through—primarily because she wants to keep it that way.
Most days, she says, she's able to push past what's happened. But then that feeling in the pit of her stomach will creep back in when she thinks how much money she's lost. The financial security she once had is less certain now. The worries hit at random moments, but they're never far from her mind.
Unlike many silent victims, though, she's now fighting back. She has retained an attorney, New York-based Kevin Galbraith, and is going through arbitration with Schwab over the fund transfer. (Galbraith claims the transfer ran afoul of a senior protection statute in Colorado, where the call center employee works; Schwab declined to comment on the matter.) She had even planned to testify at Ezeah's hearing until he pled out. She's still cooperating with prosecutors on the case.
And she wants to warn others, to keep them from going through a similar ordeal. By sharing her story, she says, she hopes to shine a light on some of the tactics these scammers use to bilk their victims. Experts actually say the best way to avoid this kind of trap is to limit the amount of personal information you share online with strangers—although this can be a hard line to draw once an emotional bond has formed. The AARP even has a Fraud Watch Network that informs people about scams in their area.
But at the end of the day, the best protection may be simply to trust your own intuition. She now realizes—with deep regret—that she should have paid more attention to early clues that something was amiss. "Trust your gut," she says.