The Sweetheart Scam
For centuries, scoundrels have preyed on lonely people with the promise of romance. Once entangled in a love match (it happens to both men and women) the dupe is persuaded to hand over money.
Sigmund (Sam) Engel must be considered a prime contender for the all-time world champion of wooing women and then emptying their bank accounts.
The Social Contract says “Engel admitted to marrying at least 200 women and swindling them out of nearly six million dollars.”
He posed as a wealthy gentleman and courted his victims in Europe until 1917 when an arrest seemed imminent. He scuttled off to America and continued to ply his trade there with a spiced up résumé that placed him at the centre of the action in Hollywood. For three decades he bilked his targets, but he came unstuck in 1949.
In November 1949, the Associated Press reported Engel was found guilty of taking $8,700 from Mrs. Reseda Corrigan of Chicago (that would be about $80,000 in today’s money). The 39-year-old widow was promised “marriage and a singing career in motion pictures … Mrs. Corrigan rose after the verdict, announced, ‘I’m grateful to everybody’ and then slumped fainting to the floor.”
Engel, who once bragged “I’ll never spend a day in jail,” was also shocked to receive a one to 10-year sentence. He died in prison in 1956 at the age of 84.
Lonely Hearts and the Internet
It’s likely Sigmund Engel would have scorned the Internet. His life and style suggests he enjoyed the cherchez-la-femme challenge of flirtation and conquest, using his charm and suave bearing to woo in face-to-face meetings. He probably would have viewed the techniques used by cyber-scammers as uncouth and without grace.
Today’s phoney Lotharios surf the dating and social networks looking for vulnerable targets. Using stolen photos (models and soldiers serving in war zones are popular) they establish on-line relationships.
Nick Sommerlad of the U.K.’s Mirror newspaper writes (September 2011) that “There then follows lengthy lovey-dovey email correspondence and phone calls. I’ve read some of the stuff and it is extraordinary how callously these criminals exploit the emotionally fragile.”
The Money Pitch
Once ensnared, the lovestruck are asked for money; usually, this happens just before the first meeting is scheduled to take place. There is a plausible story to go with the request, something to tug on the heartstrings, such as a sick relative who needs an operation they can’t afford.
Romance Scams lists some of the other yarns: “They have landed in a hotel and now cannot pay the bill so the hotel is holding all their papers so they cannot leave. They are desperate to come to you but need your help with the money to manage that.”
Another story involves being mugged and they can’t leave the hospital until the bill is paid.
Sometimes, substantial amounts of money are involved. The Canadian Bankers Association notes (February 2012) that “The average loss per victim was $11,000 and there has been a 1,500 percent increase of romance scam complaints reported since 2008.”
Difficult to Get Out of Scam
Sooner or later the target realizes they are being robbed, but breaking off the contact may not be all that easy. Perhaps the person, believing they’ve found their soul mate, has sent some nude pictures of themselves to the criminal. That’s when the romance scam turns into blackmail.
Another tactic is for the scammer to confess and then say “But, the problem is that I actually fell in love with you.” This works in some cases and life savings continue to be pilfered until it’s all gone.
Some of the swindlers are working on their own and are stringing along several people at the same time, but police have also tracked the game down to boiler room operations in West Africa where scammers work from sophisticated scripts.
How many Romance Scam Victims Are there?
Police say the lonely hearts con is seriously underreported; most victims are too embarrassed to have fallen for the fraud to come forward.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency in the U.K. notes that University of Leicester “Researchers found that 52 percent of people surveyed online had heard of the online romance scam when it was explained to them, and that one in every 50 online adults (two percent) know someone personally who had fallen victim to it.” They extrapolate that there are 200,000 victims in Britain alone. Using the same formula, there might be 100,000 victims in Canada and about a million in the U.S.
Mitch Lipka of Reuters (December 2011) offers advice on how to avoid the romance scam: “Do not send money to someone you don’t actually know. Be suspicious of an online relationship that appears to be progressing too fast. Pay particular attention to what the other person says and does. Can you easily reach them by phone to talk?”
From his prison cell Sigmund Engel offered his eight-point plan for capturing the hearts of ladies:
- Always look for the widows. Less complications.
- Establish your own background as one of wealth and culture.
- Make friends with the entire family.
- Send a woman frequent bouquets. Roses, never orchids.
- Don’t ask for money. Make her suggest lending it to you.
- Be attentive at all times.
- Be gentle and ardent.
- Always be a perfect gentleman. Subordinate sex.
According to the Canadian Anti-fraud Centre “In 2011, romance scams emerged as highest grossing scam, with over 12 million in losses reported by Canadians. This scam has also lead to incidents of suicide in cases where victims have lost their life saving and have been emotionally destroyed.”
- “Romance Scams on the Rise over the Holidays: Report.” Mitch Lipka, Reuters, December 21, 2011.
- “More Infamous Immigrants.” Joseph E. Fallon, The Social Contract, Fall 1996.
- “Sigmund Engel Convicted in ‘Love Swindle’ Case.” Associated Press, November 2, 1949.
- “Romance Scams.” Canadian Anti-fraud Centre, March 11, 2015.