Alice wondered in the first weeks of her relationship if the man she started falling for was too good to be true.
With him, she could share how she survived an emotionally abusive marriage. He told her she could trust that he wouldn't hurt her. To soothe her suspicion, he sent selfies holding handwritten notes and sketches composed of Alice. And he had gifts delivered to her Twin Cities home.
But three months and $40,000 later, Alice learned that she was not his partner but his victim. The man she fell for was instead a financial predator wearing a fictitious visage.
"I have a graduate degree; I knew about these scammers," said Alice, who is in her 60s and whose name has been changed to protect her identity. "I never imagined I could fall into something like this.."
Investigators and prosecutors in Minnesota are building a growing pile of cases against fraudsters behind so-called "romance scams" as more people — often seniors or vulnerable adults — than ever before are falling prey to schemes in which imposters win over their hearts online before draining them of their money.
Just last month, a federal grand jury in Minnesota returned indictments accusing one man of defrauding victims out of more than $2.3 million and another of raking in $1.2 million from victims across the country.
The FBI said about 24,000 victims in the United States reported losing about $1 billion to romance scams in 2021, adding that many more losses likely went unreported. The Federal Trade Commission reported last week that the amount of losses attributable to romance scams climbed from $720 million in 2020 to $1.3 billion last year.
And beyond the vast financial toll such crimes take, romance scams just as often leave lasting emotional scars and shame.
"They are some of the most devastating of all the different types of fraud scams out there," said Marti DeLiema, a University of Minnesota gerontology professor who studies frauds perpetrated against seniors. "The victims lose their financial autonomy and security, but also their sense of devotion to this person that didn't exist when it all comes to light."
Researchers, elder justice advocates and law enforcement all point to the isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic as a key catalyst in the recent rise in romance fraud.
"It doesn't take long for someone older, vulnerable or lonely to want to make that connection," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson, whose office is responsible for charging such cases in Minnesota. "It doesn't take that much prodding to make people want to engage. I think they're pretty lucrative frauds, frankly."
Late last month, a Minnesota federal grand jury indicted Dodzi Kwame Kordorwu and Solomon Eghosa Wilfred — along with other unnamed participants — on charges of targeting elderly victims for fraudulent romantic connections in order to take their money.
Kordorwu allegedly took more than $2.3 million from victims between 2018 and 2022, and Wilfred is accused of taking more than $1.2 million between June 2020 and March 2021.
Theirs are the most recent cases ina series of federal romance scam indictments brought since the pandemic.
Federal prosecutors in December charged Gayle Ferngren, a 69-year-old Rush City woman, in connection with a six-year scheme carried out with others in the U.S. and abroad to launder at least $1.8 million taken through frauds that included romance scams.
Charles Emeka Obije is scheduled for a plea hearing later this month on January charges accusing him of helping launder proceeds from online romance scams carried out by people in Nigeria. His plea would follow that of a relative also charged in the investigation.
According to court documents, Obije's victims included a 71-year-old California woman who started dating months after her husband of 43 years died. She sent him $1,800 in iTunes gift cards and wired another $20,000 before pleas for more money turned into threats. Another victim — a 68-year-old Oregon woman — lost $250,000 in the scam and later told federal agents that she had to take out a second mortgage. She told them that she now can't afford surgeries and medical treatment needed for her worsening health.
In Alice's case, she said she was led to believe that the man she met on OurTime, a dating website catering to those 50 and older, was the CEO of an energy company whose oil rig was stationed in the Gulf of Alaska. He said he lived in Minneapolis after having moved his now-deceased wife from Norway to live out her final days.
In addition to selfies, he sent images of his driver's license with a purported Minneapolis address. At one point, he had a DHL mailing sent to Alice's home that contained a massive paycheck he wanted her to hold for him until he returned. A fake website for his purported company still lives online.
An email message sent by the Star Tribune through the website was returned as undeliverable.
Alice wired the man $40,000 last month to help him purchase equipment for a job that was expected to return him to Minnesota within weeks. But he soon reported back with bad news of an equipment failure and the need for more help. The sooner Alice wired additional funds, she reasoned, the sooner her partner could return to both meet her and pay her back with interest.
This time, her bank's fraud department flagged the attempt to wire more money. Both the bank and her financial adviser started working to change Alice's bank accounts while protecting her from identity theft.
Reports on cases like Alice's — discovered earlier this month — all hit the inbox of Marty Fleischhacker, the state's senior financial fraud ombudsman working for the Commerce Department.
"The first thing I always try to do is assess whether they are still losing money," Fleischhacker said. "Then I do everything in my power to stop that."
Under the state's Safe Seniors Financial Protection Act passed in 2018, banks and financial advisers now report suspected exploitation to Fleischhacker or to the Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center. Fleischhacker and the banks can place temporary holds or delays on transactions to guard against financial exploitation.
Fleischhacker then works with victims to uncover red flags or investigate images or other details sent to them by scammers. In some cases he notifies local law enforcement, the FBI or adult protective services.
Alice's scammer fit much of what Fleischhacker has seen in the romance fraud cases he's investigated during his three years in the post: an overseas job with limits on when and how the scammer can communicate; fake documentation to prove they are who they say they are; and promises to repay their victims with interest if they can just help them with a money emergency.
Fleischhacker fast discovered that the man's driver's license was fraudulent. The convincing images he sent her were altered versions of photos he found online of a Texas pastor.
Jay Haapala, of the Minnesota AARP office, said it's a myth that seniors are targeted because of their age. Instead, he said, older people who are victimized tend to have much more money to lose in the first place.
Such frauds don't always begin on dating websites, he added, noting that romance scams also originate through gaming apps such as Words With Friends or social media messaging.
Deliema, the University of Minnesota professor, described the behavior of many romance scammers as "grooming," noting that they seek out characteristics that might make a potential victim especially vulnerable.
"Maybe they just became widowed and lost a partner," she said, "or always struggled to find love in life. They play the long game, really building up trust. They don't ask for money on day two. They spend weeks or months cultivating this relationship before they ask for money. That's what makes it feasible or plausible for some individuals."
In the still-fresh days since her new relationship evaporated, Alice sometimes fights the urge to unblock the phone number of the man who duped her. Maybe she could finally unload all of the rage and pain he left her with.
Instead, she's trying once again to move on. She's back on the OurTime website. This time, she said, she's avoiding profiles with only one picture and a short bio. She's adamant about meeting in person. At least one account vanished from the site last week after she pushed back, she said.
But Alice has already since met with one man for coffee, with plans to meet again, and has another date lined up at an ice maze.
"Boy, am I sadder, but wiser now," she said.