An 87-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Lost $2.8 Million to an Online Romance Scam

These scams often involve unsolicited contact from social media and eventual demands for money, per the FTC.

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By Gabrielle Bienasz

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Online romance scams targeting seniors have been on the rise, particularly since the pandemic, per The New York Times.

The Federal Trade Commission said that reported losses from romance scams against older adults were about $84 million in 2019 and increased almost double to $139 million in 2020.

"Reported losses to romance scams have increased significantly in recent years, and this trend accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic," the agency said.

Romance scams have also been trending up in general, the agency noted in a separate blog post. It posited that besides being more isolated in homes, more people are also using dating websites or apps, and scammers have found it easier to hack up reasons they cannot travel, the agency added.

These scams often involve unsolicited contact from social media and eventual demands for money, per the FTC.

"They might say it's for a phone card to keep chatting. Or they might claim it's for a medical emergency, with COVID-19 often sprinkled into their tales of woe. The stories are endless, and can create a sense of urgency that pushes people to send money over and over again," it wrote.

Most of the people who commit these fraudulent interactions are not often caught or prosecuted, per the NYT.

However, in late January, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that authorities had arrested a Florida woman, Peaches Stergo, 36, for stealing the life savings of an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor. Authorities say that Stergo met the octogenarian on a dating website and then convinced him she needed money to release funds from an injury settlement, totaling $2.8 million.

"While the Victim lost his life savings and was forced to give up his apartment, STERGO lived a life of luxury with the millions she received from the fraud: she bought a home in a gated community, a condominium, a boat, and numerous cars, including a Corvette and a Suburban," they wrote.

Another woman, Kate Kleinert told the NYT she was scammed by a man who requested her on Facebook, posing as a doctor from Nigeria.

They spoke every day for months, and then he asked her for money. She gave him a total of about $39,000, which included her life insurance money from her husband and social security.

"The loss that hurts the most is losing his love and losing the family that I thought I was going to have," Kleinert told the outlet. She said she told the police but they could not help her.

Beginning in 2012, 68-year-old Henry Corder, wooed an unnamed widowed woman in Massachusetts out of a total of $500,000 while pretending to be in a romantic relationship with her, per MarketWatch.

Not all scams are about romance, either. In a 2021 report on elder fraud, the DOJ notes that "the number of elderly victims has risen at an alarming rate, while the loss amounts are even more staggering" and that 92,000-plus people 60 or older had reported that they had lost a total of $1.7 billion, a 74% increase from the reported loss in 2020.

Gabrielle Bienasz

Entrepreneur Staff

Gabrielle Bienasz is a staff writer at Entrepreneur. She previously worked at Insider and Inc. Magazine. 

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