How to spot a romance scam

October 4, 2022   |   Field Guide

Two days.

That’s how close one of our clients came to losing more than $200,000 as the victim of an elaborate, multi-month romance scam.

Note: This video was originally published in our monthly client e-newsletter, Guidepost.

“Hi Kirt, I’m Katie.”

I recently received an email from one of our clients, Kirt (name changed for privacy), asking me about the tax implications of taking a large withdraw from his IRA to help out a friend.

Concerned, I called Kirt immediately and he explained that he needed money to help out his friend, Katie. They met online and had been talking and messaging over WhatsApp for a few months now. He was very excited about this new relationship. They talked frequently and met up once in person. They had even begun to talk about having a life together.

I asked Kirt to tell me a little more about Katie.

He explained that she was from the Midwest but had been spending a lot of time in Rochester, NY lately, taking care of her sick mother. Her mom was in the hospital, and Katie had actually quit her job to help take care of her.

Her mother didn’t have health insurance, and, to make matters worse, Katie was having issues accessing her bank accounts back home. As you can imagine, this was a very difficult season for Katie.

During their chats, it was clear that Katie could use some support. Though she never asked for help directly, Kirt gladly sent her money a few times to help her out— for which she was always extremely grateful.

Recently, however, Katie’s mom took a sudden turn for the worse. She suffered a severe cardiac event and needed major surgery right away. This was complicated by the fact that the hospital was demanding immediate payment before they would continue treating her. Katie was desperate and didn’t know what to do.

She was embarrassed to ask Kirt for help, but she was out of options. She needed to send the hospital $200,000 as soon as possible so her mother could get the life-saving surgery that she needed.

So, Katie reluctantly asked Kirt for a loan.

As a show of good faith that she would pay back the loan, Katie insisted that she make payments on Kirt’s mortgage and two credit cards. Kirt agreed, and Katie paid $20k toward these debts. At her request, Kirt verified that these payments were received—and they checked out.

As Kirt told his story, alarm bells were going off in my head. I explained to him that this had all the makings of a scam.

And, as we dug deeper into his story, I learned even more troubling details about the events surrounding this relationship.

Assessing the damage

As it turned out, over the course of the summer, Kirt had already sent Katie money on multiple occasions totaling more than $12,000.

As for the $20,000 that Katie had supposedly “paid off” from Kirt’s mortgage and credit cards, it turned out that she provided invalid account numbers and the payments were reversed and canceled—just a few days after Kirt had verified the transactions.

As you can imagine, all of this was extremely difficult for Kirt to hear and believe.

We tried to schedule a call with Katie multiple times trying to “figure out the logistics” of sending the money (where, in reality, we were trying to get more information to report her to the authorities). While she would initially accept, she would always cancel at the last minute.

When Kirt finally told Katie that he would NOT be sending her any more money, she became extremely aggressive and abusive, saying anything she could think of to get him to send the money.

In the end, neither Katie, her mother, nor the entire situation was real. This was, in fact, an elaborate, multi-month romance scam. We were extremely fortunate to have caught it before Kirt lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from his retirement account.

Unfortunately, Kirt’s story is not unique or even rare. Since the pandemic, the sophistication, complexity, and pervasiveness of scamming have increased dramatically. In fact, the US was the most targeted country in the world last year for internet scams, with PA as the fifth most targeted state.

It’s right here in our backyard.

How to spot a romance scam

My goal in sharing all of this today—and why Kirt allowed me to share his story—is to help you recognize and protect yourself from the type of scam that Kirt fell victim to: the romance scam.

Romance scams are when a criminal attempts to gain your affection and trust to steal your money. These scams usually begin from social media, dating sites, email, or instant messages. Scammers have perfected the art of gaining their victims’ trust and capitalizing on their sense of loneliness, isolation, or desire for companionship.

Romance scams are incredibly effective because victims tend to keep their relationships private from others until it is too late. Feelings of attraction, privacy, and even shame cloud their judgment and cause normal, intelligent people to make bad and often costly decisions.

Many variations of the romance scam exist, but I want to share four common elements that most share and four ways to help protect against them.

So, how do you spot a romance scam?

  1. Most victims are older, single, divorced, or widowed. Scammers tend to target older individuals most likely to be lonely and exploit their desire for companionship.
  2. Most, if not all, communications are done online with the scammer’s camera turned off. Scammers rarely meet in person. They often agree to meet but then cancel at the last minute due to an unexpected conflict. Kirt’s situation was rare in that the scammer actually did meet with him person—making the scam even more convincing.
  3. Scammers try to move the relationship along very quickly. They often talk about plans for a shared future and even propose marriage after only a few weeks or months.
  4. Scammers always ask for money or a loan. It might not happen immediately, but eventually—whether days, weeks, or even months—the scammer will ask for money. They usually start small and increase the amount they ask for each time. There’s almost always an urgent reason for their request, such as a legal, medical, family, or “I can’t get home” type of emergency.

So, what can you do to protect yourself and your loved ones?

  1. Embrace the wisdom we give to our kids and DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS! I get that this may be a little unrealistic in today’s society; however, please maintain a healthy skepticism about anyone you meet online. Follow your gut, not your heart. Introduce your online friends to someone you trust early on in the relationship.
  2. Don’t ever share your financial information with or send money to someone you meet online. Think about it for a minute: when was the last time YOU asked someone you just met, whether online or in person, for money, a loan, or their personal financial information?
  3. Do your research. Google is your best friend here. Google the names, text messages, and pictures of the people you meet online. Google their stories —“mother sick in hospital and needs money on Whats App”—and just see what comes up! Often, scammers will use the same fake information over and over again and it will show up in multiple places. This is a dead giveaway they are not who they say they are and the situation is not real.
  4. Talk to your friends, parents, and grandparents about scams. Educate them, share this post or video, and talk with them about their online relationships and activity.

Closing thoughts

I want to thank Kirt personally for allowing us to share his story.

If you suspect that you or someone you know may be a victim of a scam, stop all communications and report the situation immediately to your local police department. Lock your credit and notify your financial advisor, your bank, and your mortgage company as soon as possible.

We also recommend that you consider signing up for an identity theft protection service such as LifeLock or Identity Force.

Stay vigilant and remember…don’t talk to strangers!


  Doug Denlinger, RLP®, CKA®
  LifeGuide Managing Partner


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