CONWAY — A Carroll County woman was taken for about $200,000 by scamsters with a siren song about a sailor down on his luck. They used photos of a handsome sea captain who took to social media to warn that his image was being used for nefarious purposes.
The woman, who asked that her name not be used, is working with the FBI to try to nab the con artists. She said she hopes publicizing her story will prevent others from falling into the same trap.
The case was referred to the Sun from a local police chief.
"Susan," 53, said the scam began to unfold in January when she was looking at an employment website Glassdoor that offered an opportunity to work in the health-care field from home.
She was sent all sorts of official-looking paperwork and told she had to pay a series of fees for home office equipment, such as a computer and scanner. The equipment never came. The company wanted to be paid in gift cards.
"It just kind of escalated," said Susan. "It occurred to me something is just wrong here."
She learned that the pretend company was trying to mimic a legitimate company in Indiana. She notified the Attorney General's Office in Indiana, as well as Glassdoor, Federal Trade Commission and, eventually, the FBI.
The scammers also tried another approach.
Through a political group Susan had joined on social media, she began interacting with a person who seemed to take an interest in her.
"It ended up being a romance scam," said Susan.
At first, the online interaction was normal chitchat about hobbies and family. The man said he was a subcontractor on a ship.
"Apparently, he had to give up all assets before he got this contract," said Susan. "All assets were tied up, so he had no access to money, which I thought was kind of weird."
After chatting with the man over the course of a month, she began to be convinced that he was legitimate.
Then the man said he had a child going to school abroad. "He began to tell me he was in some kind of distress; his child was sick and the school was asking him to come and he couldn't because he didn't have access to funds, so he wanted help," said Susan. "I tried to help."
She drove to southern New England to make deposits at specified banks. Then the charges got bigger and bigger to the point where all her savings and retirement were depleted, totaling just under $200,000.
The money is probably not recoverable.
She never spoke with the sailor by phone or video. But she stumbled on a reverse image search service and ran a search for the sailor.
"It was supposed supposed to be him, and it's somebody entirely different," said Susan. "When I looked up the actual person, the very first thing on his social media is a warning that his image is being used for fraudulent purposes."
In reality, the man in the photo is Capt. Thomas Lindegaard Madsen. He's a married gay Dane who lives in Copenhagen. He is on the board of directors on the transport and logistics company Maersk.
In April of last year, he posted on Facebook saying that he understood his image was being used to manipulate people.
"As long as women continue to fall in love with a picture and send money to strangers, there will be scammers," said Madsen.
"Think of it like a walk in the street: Would you start talking to someone wearing a mask? Would you fall in love with him before you had his face confirmed? Would you give him your wallet? It is EXACTLY the same on the internet! Just because you sit at home in front of your computer, you still have to TAKE CARE."
Susan is embarrassed but said she's not alone.
The Daily Mail reported that an Australian woman was taken for $10,000 by a scam using Madsen's image.
Susan now uses an app called "Social Catfish" to help verify the identities of people she communicates with online.
Susan notified her local police and began working with FBI special agent Kim Blackwood, who examined Susan's computer.
"That's when we noticed that when this person was emailing and this other company that I was dealing with in months past had the same IP address," said Susan, adding the work-at-home ad was "bait."
Blackwood said she has seen at least one reported loss of over $1 million in New Hampshire.
She confirmed that Susan complained to the bureau and stressed that it's important for victims to report incidents to the FBI. She said one particular victim might have a piece of the puzzle and someone else might report another piece and that allows the cases to be solved.
According to the FBI, in 2018 over $362 million was lost by victims in confidence/romance scams. There were 18,493 reported victims that year.
"Lots of people being taken for lots of money," said Susan.
Blackwood says she believes the scammers were from overseas.
"It is embarrassing to me that I was scammed, but I cannot let my embarrassment allow others to be hurt, too," said Susan.
Scammers do a lot of research to find out what is successful and then tend to copy what works. It could be for that reason Madsen's photo became popular with them.
"They spend a lot of time because the return is huge," said Blackwood.
Among FBI warnings to the public are: iIf you suspect an online relationship is a scam, stop all contact immediately. If you have already sent money, it is extremely important to immediately report any transfer of funds to your financial institution; file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov and contact your local FBI field office or other law enforcement agency.
The following are red flags, according to the FBI:
• The individual sends you a photo that looks like a glamour shot out of a magazine.
• The individual professes love quickly.
• The individual tries to isolate you from friends and family.
• The individual claims to be working and living far away, whether that’s on the other side of the country or overseas.
• The individual makes plans to visit you, but then always has to cancel because of some emergency.
• If you haven’t met the individual in person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
• The individual asks you for money. Never, ever send money to someone you met online and have not met in person. It may take weeks or months to get to the point where they ask for money, but, the FBI says, eventually they will ask.