Last month, in Northern California, a lovelorn woman waited for a package that would never come. Janet, as we’ll call her (because she didn’t want her real name used), had recently fallen for a handsome Turkish doctor she met online.
He told her he loved her and promised to come visit her, just as soon as he was done with his assignment in Yemen. But first, could she help him? His bank was shuttering and he needed to get a box full of gold bars and cash safely into the United States. The box was worth an estimated $6 million, and if she helped him transport it, the riches were theirs.
The box, of course, never came; the riches did not exist. Her lover was not an international doctor but a romance scammer, who was probably professing his love for a dozen other women at the same time. Janet didn’t realize this until two years into her ordeal, when she logged onto Facebook and saw someone with a different name using his exact same photos. By that time, she had already spent more than $200,000 on her fake lover and his sham package—some of it out of her 12-year-old son’s savings. And she was furious.
“I’m going after them, I’m telling you that now,” Janet said in a recent interview, adding later: “And I need all the help that I can get.”
So Janet called Ruth Grover.
Drive north out of Leeds, England, past the small town of Harrogate, then Northallerton, then Darlington, and you’ll reach Middlesbrough, an 1800s port town with a population of 140,000. Keep going, another 15 miles, past two golf clubs, endless fields, and at least one crematorium, and you will arrive at Hartlepool, the cloudy, seaside hometown of Ruth Grover. A 66-year-old former police dispatcher with a disarmingly friendly British accent, Grover lives alone with her parakeet, Pinda, in the same place she’s lived for 35 years. (Her two sons, ages 41 and 39, and three grandchildren visit often.)
Fourteen years ago, Grover and her husband, Jeff, retired together from their jobs at the Hartlepool police department, hoping to—as she puts it—“just do nothing.” Three months later, Jeff was diagnosed with skin cancer. Their joint retirement, meant to be spent visiting family and vacationing on their favorite Greek island, was consumed by doctor’s visits and chemotherapy appointments. Jeff passed away shortly thereafter.
It wasn’t until two years later that Grover brought herself to put the word “widow” on her Facebook profile. (“An awful word, isn’t it?” she says now.) But when she did, the funniest thing happened, she says: “I suddenly became very attractive to four-star generals in the U.S. Army!”
The young Army men incessantly messaging Ruth on Facebook weren’t actually interested in her, of course—they were running a classic military romance scam. The scam usually starts with a casual connection on Facebook or Instagram—“I just saw your profile and thought you were so beautiful!”—and leads to longer, more in-depth conversations. Before you know it, the young soldier is madly in love with his new conquest. When it comes time to meet in person, however, the soldier is conveniently deployed to a far-off location—one where he will inevitably run into some kind of crisis requiring an emergency infusion of cash.
Most romance scams deploy a similar format: The scammer messages their victim on a dating or social media site and establishes a swift connection. They may use a sob story to get past a victim’s defenses: a bitter divorce, maybe, or a wife who died of cancer. Then they ply her with endearments like “baby” and “darling,” and messages sent first thing in the morning and right before bed at night. Once the victim is hooked, they dream up an urgent reason to leave town. (There’s a reason why military, cruise, and oil rigger jobs are all popular with scammers.)
Once the scammer has allegedly decamped for a far-off location, they start with the requests: small, at first—maybe a couple hundred dollars when their credit card gets stolen—then increasingly larger and more complex. Grover has seen some scammers fake their own kidnapping and beg the victim to pay ransom. “We hate Christmas,” Grover said in a recent interview. “The number of airports that will have ladies standing in them just waiting for their men to come home is ghastly.”
But Grover didn’t know any of this back then. At the time, she just typed “romance scam” into Google and was horrified by what popped up: Story after story of women her own age being hoodwinked by scammers, some out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Alone in her home for the first time in decades, Grover admits now, she became a little obsessed. She read every article and social media post she could find about romance scammers, staying up all hours to scour anti-scammer forums and Facebook groups. And she started to notice how the scammers used the same photos over and over—usually images borrowed from someone else’s public Instagram account. She wanted to publish the photos somewhere, to warn other women not to interact with anyone using them. But none of the groups she joined would let her post them.
All the other groups wanted proof that a swindle had happened, Grover says, “but I wanted to warn women before the scam.”
Romance scamming is big business—the biggest in fact, of any financial fraud reported to the FTC in the last five years. According to the commission, Americans have lost $1.3 billion to romance scammers since 2017, and the numbers are only growing. In 2021 alone, U.S. citizens lost a record $547 million—a nearly 80 percent increase over the year before. The FBI reported even larger numbers: Approximately $1 billion lost to romance scams in the last year. Paul Sibenik, the lead case manager at a cryptocurrency tracing company, previously told The Daily Beast that romance scams were his company’s biggest business category by far.
Some experts have attributed the growth in romance scams to loneliness and isolation wrought by the pandemic. Locked in their homes, more Americans than ever turned to dating apps for affection, only to be bamboozled by the scammers lying in wait. But romance scammers can strike anywhere: On Facebook, Instagram, even the online Scrabble app. And it can affect people of any age. While people over 70 years old reported the largest losses in 2021, the number of reports from people ages 18 to 29 has increased tenfold since 2017, according to the FTC.
And such scams can prove remarkably hard to prosecute. Scammers generally reside outside the victim’s country of origin, meaning local law enforcement is of little help. Even the FBI has limited resources, and tends to prioritize cases in which large amounts of money were lost. Victims who lost thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of thousands, can wind up feeling embarrassed and alone. Which is where Grover comes in.
It was during a Manchester United soccer game that Grover’s solution came to her. What women needed, she realized, was exactly what the soccer players displayed on the field: Teamwork. She would start her own Facebook group—one where women could work in tandem to keep each other safe. They would post the scammers’ fake names and photos to warn other people away; they would list red flags and warning signs of potential frauds. She would call the group “ScamHaters United.”
Within weeks, the page had thousands of followers. Women shared their own experiences and posted links to news coverage of other scams. Sometimes the men whose photos were stolen got in touch, looking to set the record straight for anyone who was contacted by a scammer using their name. It got so popular they had to start break-off groups where victims could commiserate privately. Some of the women, inspired by the support they’d received, asked Grover if they could stick around and help. She didn’t see why not.
The ScamHaters United page now has more than 54,000 followers on Facebook, nearly 25,000 followers on Instagram, and about 20 volunteers helping manage the pages across 14 different countries. They also have a website where women can search the name of their online beau and see if anyone has reported him before. The site provides informational guides with names like “SCAMMERS AND PSYCHOLOGY… The Art of Manipulation” and “So… you in love with a handsome soldier?? THINK AGAIN!” (One page contains a list of all active U.N. peacekeeping missions so women can call bullshit on anyone who says the organization suddenly deployed them to Syria or Afghanistan.)
But the most important service the group offers is not immediately visible. As Grover’s page grew, more and more women started messaging the page directly, wondering if they were being scammed or seeking help once they realized they were. Many of these women were so deep into the fraud that they were terrified to tell their families and friends; too embarrassed to go to the police. The victims—most of them older, lonely women—had nowhere else to turn.
The messages soon became so constant that Grover couldn’t keep up with them alone. She asked the volunteers she’d retained to start manning the messages in shifts, depending on their time zone. Over time, ScamHaters became not just a repository of information, but a 24-hour hotline for victims of romance scams.
The first order of business, when a victim reaches out, is convincing her that the person she talked to for weeks, months, even years, is not who she thinks he is. Often, this can be done by reverse image searching the scammer’s photos and proving that he is not a successful U.N. doctor but a mid-tier Instagram model. But sometimes the women are adamant, insisting that their lover is authentic. Then the volunteers have to walk them through their checklist: Did he message you out of the blue? Did he say he was a widow? A single dad? A veteran? How old is he? How old are you? How quickly did he ask you for money?
“It’s a very difficult situation, because you’ve got to give them really bad news, and you’ve got to do it in a very subtle way,” Grover said. “You’ve got to ease the information out.”
By this point, Grover says, the women are usually so worked up that they’re “glued to the ceiling.” It’s her job to scrape them down. She starts gently, asking them what personal information they’ve given to their spurious suitor. (Scammers often send cheap gifts in order to ascertain the victim’s address, or ask for their birthday under the guise of sending a present, then turn around and use it to apply for credit cards in the victim’s name.) Grover walks them through the process of setting up fraud alerts and flagging any compromised accounts to their banks. She advises them to report the fraud to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a division of the FBI dedicated to online crime.
Then comes the hard part: Getting them to cut off contact. Women have various reasons for reaching out to their fake lovers one last time: Some believe he’ll offer an explanation, others just want a chance to confront him. Grover almost always advises them against it. She’s seen too many women return to her page weeks or months later, after falling back into the scammer’s arms once again.
Still, she likes the repeat customers better than the women who contact them once and disappear. With those ones, she says, “you always wonder whether they’ve gone back to the scammer.”
It’s easy to think that anyone who falls for a romance scam is stupid or gullible. It also isn’t true. Grover gets messages every day from college-educated professionals who never in their life believed they would have fallen for such a thing. They start off their messages to her by saying, “I just want you to know I’m an intelligent person,” or “I have a very high-powered job.” It doesn’t matter, she says. What matters is the scammer got to them at the right time.
“I hear it all the time: ‘I was lonely, my wife had just died, I’ve been married 35 years and he doesn’t look at me,’” Grover says. “Some people will say to us, ‘I have never accepted these people, but I did that day.’”
“I honestly believe that it could happen to anyone,” she added, “and it’s just the day the contact happens.”
It’s helpful here to consider exactly what victims are up against: Not a lone wolf with an internet connection and a good imagination, but a whole army of scammers working in concert to defraud as many victims as possible. Many of these groups work like a multi-level marketing scheme, with a leader at the top who trains his subordinates, then takes a cut of whatever profits they make. They have whole IT operations; people whose entire job it is to make webpages for fake shipping companies and social media profiles for people who don’t exist. Just last year, the DOJ indicted 11 people in Texas who were allegedly working with a transnational organized crime syndicate to defraud elderly singles on Match.com, ChristianMingle, JSwipe, and PlentyofFish. The charges are still pending.
Grover knows all of this because she hangs out with the scammers. Not in person, obviously, but in their Telegram chats and Facebook groups. (She isn’t entirely sure why they let her in, she says. “I think they think we’re just out scamming as old ladies.”) She watches as the scammers barter for fake profile photos, swap lists of potential victims—”suckers lists,” she calls them—and suggest the best guy for a blackmail job. She learns what phrases they’re using, what new tactics they are testing out. Then she writes it all down and brings it back to the group.
Previously, she says, she’d see men in the chats asking for 10 or so recruits to join their scam syndicate. In recent weeks, they’ve started asking for 50. No one is fully aware of how large this problem is, and how fast it’s growing, she says—and if they were, they’d be doing something about it. She says her group hears from up to 200 unique victims a day, from all over the globe. “This is the biggest crime in the world,” she says. “And no one knows about it.”
The effect on people’s lives, too, is enormous. Sometimes she hears from people who’ve lost a couple hundred dollars in a scam, but more often it’s in the six figures. The most she ever heard of someone losing was $2.2 million, from someone who convinced him to invest in her fraudulent crypto scheme. Others have lost their homes. In the last two months, she says, she’s heard from three people who ultimately took their own lives.
One man, who contacted her just a few weeks ago, told her he’d given more than $60,000 to a young woman who said she was in love with him and wanted to come live with him. He only realized it was a scam when he got a letter from the bank saying she’d changed the name on the deed to his house. The man stopped responding for a few days, until finally Grover got a message back. It was from his sister. The man had died by suicide.
This is why Grover doesn’t love shows like Dateline or talk shows like Dr Phil, which only focus on individual victims’ stories.
“It tends to make it look like there are a dozen victims a year,” she said. “I like people to know individual stories, that’s great, that’s needed. But people need to know the scale of it.”
Rebecca D’Antonio was on the verge of taking her own life when she found the ScamHaters. A successful, 37-year-old executive assistant, D’Antonio was preparing to buy her first home in 2016 when she met a handsome businessman on OkCupid. The man, Mathew, was kind, a good listener, and shared many of her same hobbies. Plus, he had a son—something D’Antonio would never be able to have herself. (His wife, he told her, had died of cancer.) So when Mathew’s card stopped working while on an international trip with his son, she put aside her doubts and lent him some money.
By the time D’Antonio ended things with Mathew a year later, she had sent him at least $100,000. She was bankrupt, about to be evicted from her apartment, and at her wits’ end. She scrounged together as many pills as she could find and went for a final dinner with her best friend. But the friend saw her suffering and pulled her back from the edge. A few weeks later, another friend introduced her to ScamHaters.
Today, D’Antonio spends much of her time counseling other victims who reach out to the page. She also hosts regular Instagram livestreams with Grover and has been an informational speaker for the Orlando Police Department and the FBI. Eventually, she wants to write a book about her experience.
Talking with other victims and sharing her own story, she says, has given her nightmare meaning.
She added: “I’m lucky in that I have a big job, but I’m not alone in that job.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many of the ScamHaters: They would probably be doing this work anyway, but it’s more fun to do it together. The group of women, many of whom are widowed or divorced, most of whom are between 40 and 70 years old, keep a running group chat to vent their frustrations and share their successes. Often, however, the conversation drifts into inside jokes or personal details about their days. “Things are very intense,” Grover said. “You need a bit of silly sometimes.”
Each woman has a specific role to play: Jo Dalton, a 55-year-old from London, commandeered the group’s Instagram page and boosted its followers from about 100 to more than 24,000. (One trick, she said, was doing livestream videos with real soldiers.) D’Antonio, one of the few administrators who is also a scam victim, counsels women who’ve gone especially far down the rabbit hole. Sandy Kirk, a 59-year-old mother of four from Kentucky, is the queen of the reverse image search—which sometimes requires reverse-searching for dick pics that victims swear are authentic. She usually finds them on porn sites or Twitter. “I know to some people that sounds really gross, but it does work,” she said.
Several of the administrators reported spending all day, from sun-up to sun-down, working on projects for the ScamHaters group. Grover herself estimates spending 12 hours a day on the page. Still, she says, no one takes a dime for their contribution. “We are damn good,” she said, “but we’re not professional.”
Successes in this business are hard to come by. Police investigations usually go nowhere; Grover has yet to see a victim get their money back. The number of new scammers and victims, meanwhile, is virtually endless. Grover consoles herself with the handful of people who write to her every day, thanking her for running the page. Often it’s just a line or two, telling her they shut down a scammer or deleted a friend request based on her page’s warnings. “We’ve got to count everything as a win,” she said. “It’s a nice feeling when you know that you’ve saved someone.”
Just this week, however, a woman who had reached out to the page last year contacted Grover to share that her scammer was being prosecuted. She even sent Grover the letter from the Department of Justice informing her of the charges, and asked her to post it in the group. It was only the second prosecution Grover had ever seen.
“She is absolutely thrilled,” Grover said of the victim. “She said to me: ‘I’m not going to get any money back, but if we can put someone behind bars, that’s worth it.’”
“There aren’t enough quantifiable advances,” she said later, after some thought. “But I do feel like we’ve made a positive contribution.” She was halfway through explaining another scam when she had to stop. Someone was asking for her in the group.