Two years ago, a 70-year-old woman met who she thought was the love of her life on a dating website. She was a widow, and her late husband had left her a quarter of a million dollars.
Although she had never met her long-distance lover in person, he convinced her online that he would move to the United States and marry her if she just sent him the money to do it. It was not until she spent thousands of dollars, eventually losing her house and having to live out of her car, that she realized, with the help of one Cal Poly professor, she had been scammed.
The widow had been the victim of a love scam, which is just one of the many types of scams the Orfalea College of Business professor deals with.
“I don’t want students to waste their time on a bogus job offer. I want them to be able to tell the fake ones from the real ones.”
For six years, she has helped victims rebuild their lives and works with an organization to alert them that they have been scammed. By communicating with perpetrators and wasting their time, she stays up to date on the newest scams and educates the public on what scamming looks like. After receiving multiple death threats in the past, the professor requested to remain anonymous.
In the past, scamming emails were easy to identify. However, modern scams are becoming more sophisticated, according to the professor.
The love scam, she said, particularly struck her.
“[The widow] is always on my mind,” the professor said. “That story just absolutely broke my heart. A lot of times, I kind of dedicate my work to her.”
In addition to love scams, the professor said she has seen a recent increase in fake job emails to American college students. This is a result of collaboration between scammers from different countries, leading to a merge of different techniques from all over the world. Students can even now see scam emails on job-seeking platforms like Handshake, or receive compromised emails from people who actually work at different educational institutions.
“I don’t want students to waste their time on a bogus job offer,” the professor said. “I want them to be able to tell the fake ones from the real ones.”
Her goal is to get to the scam victims before they spend any money. She said she had been able to infiltrate a couple of scammer operations and knows enough about them that she can pretend to be a scammer herself. She does this by emailing back-and-forth with scammers, sometimes using her victim identity, a male from another state, and sometimes using her scammer identity. Once she is able to identify a possible victim, she then tries to help them piece their lives back together.
Oftentimes, she said, scammers have another job in addition to scamming and are primarily men. The professor has asked scammers what they spend their money on and their top two responses, regardless of which country they are from, are fancy clothing and prostitutes.
According to the professor, almost all the scam emails have patterns in common, such as offering a personal assistant job and containing frequent mistakes in grammar and structure.
Business sophomore Amy Lan said she was contacted by a scammer posing as a new Cal Poly professor moving to San Luis Obispo. When she replied saying she was interested, he immediately sent her a check for $1,500 to deposit and pay a moving company. When she did not reply for a few days, the scammer got very angry and sent threatening emails, trying to pressure her into going through with it.
“It was just a very aggressive email,” Lan said. “It was late at night, and I was panicking.”
She eventually deposited the check into her Wells Fargo bank account, which, to her surprise, automatically accepted it, despite the check being fake.
“A bad check can haunt you for about three months. Identity theft can haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Before it could bounce, Lan called the company of the check, whose employees told her the check number did not exist. She also called the department that the alleged professor said he would be teaching for and was told there was no professor under that name. She immediately stopped contacting him.
A less prevalent identity theft scam occurs when scammers request that victims fill out documentation with their personal information, including a social security number. The professor said people should never give out this information until attending an in-person interview.
“A bad check can haunt you for about three months,” the professor said. “Identity theft can haunt you for the rest of your life.”
The professor said she believes educating the public about how to identify scams will make a real difference. If someone receives a scam email, she said to just ignore it. Letting scammers know you figured them out will just educate them.
For further help, victims can create an anonymous account at scamwarners.com and submit the email there without a personal address.
“If it is too good to be true, it probably is,” Lan said.