Three women who thought they had found love through online dating sites are sharing how they unwittingly became part of a money laundering scheme run by scammers.
NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen spoke with the women, who are hoping their stories will warn others away from potentially becoming "money mules," which theFBI defines as "someone who transfers or moves illegally acquired money on behalf of someone else."
The three women, who were introduced to NBC News by the Better Business Bureau and AARP, requested to be identified by pseudonyms.
All of them thought they were simply helping someone by depositing checks and giving money.
A woman identified as Denise says she fell in love with a man named Alec, who sent her flowers. She eventually sent him $5,000, and then when she said she was out of cash, he offered to send her money in the form of an unemployment card.
"He had me take the money from that card, buy money orders with it, putting them in my account and then taking the money out and sending him bitcoin," Denise told Nguyen on TODAY Monday.
"Money mule" love schemes have exploded online during the pandemic as part of overall fraud involving the $360 billion CARES Act providing COVID-19 relief. At least $39.2 billion of unemployment payments across the country were estimated to have been lost to fraud and other errors, according to a report issued last month by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of the Inspector General.
Many of the people committing the unemployment fraud have created fake online dating profiles in an attempt to scam others into helping them clean their stolen money. Reports of romance cyber crimes have increased 27% during the pandemic from $475 million to more than $605 million, according to the FBI.
"(The pandemic has) created an opportunity for these scammers to find other reasons to ask for money," said Richard Jacobs, the assistant special agent in-charge of the Cyber Branch in the FBI’s New York office. "And it's another excuse not to meet with someone in person, which they really don't want to do."
A woman identified as Yvonne experienced it firsthand.
"He said that some other money was coming in the mail," she told Nguyen. "Later that day the envelope was in my mail and there was $2,000, cashier's check, and that was supposed to go, again where the unemployment checks were going."
Yvonne had the deposits reversed and closed her bank account after the request.
A woman identified as Helen had a similar experience when a man she met online told her she could keep part of a $5,000 deposit to help pay her rent if she would withdraw the remainder of the money and deliver it to someone else in person.
"I'm like, 'This sounds like money laundering. Oh God, what have I done?'" Helen told Nguyen.
She closed her account immediately, reported the deposit as fraudulent to her bank and then cut off contact with the scammer.
The FBI has also stressed that the victims of "money mule" schemes could also be potentially prosecuted for crimes like mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, money laundering, and aggravated identity theft as part of a criminal money laundering conspiracy.
Victims could also have their personal information stolen and used by criminals and could potentially have to repay money lost by other victims if the criminals are using the victim's identity to perpetrate the schemes.
"You're becoming an unwitting accomplice in some of those crimes," Jacobs told Nguyen. "And the money that you're sending overseas on their behalf, in many cases, is going to other crimes, like drug trafficking, and human trafficking, and even funding terrorism."
Scammers are targeting people of all backgrounds.
"They say, 'Oh, I have a Ph.D., I'll never be a victim of that," AARP director of fraud support Amy Nofziger said on TODAY. "Your education level, where you grew up, how much money you make, does not matter."
Nofziger says there are certain red flags to watch for when meeting anyone online.
- Someone who never wants to meet in person or conduct a video call.
- A person tells you "I love you" shortly after meeting online.
- You are asked for your bank account information or to receive or forward money to people you do not know.
The FBI also has guidance on what to do if you think you are being scammed.
- Stop communication with the suspected criminal.
- Stop transferring money or any other items of value immediately.
- Maintain any receipts, contact information, and relevant communications (emails, chats, text messages, etc.).
- Notify your bank and the service you used to conduct the transaction.
- Notify law enforcement. Report suspicious activity to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at ic3.gov, and contact your local FBI field office.