KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) records show millions of dollars are lost every year to romance scams. An 80-year-old Knoxville widow recently became the latest such victim.
Sharon, a widow for 27 years, found a handsome stranger asking to be her friend on Facebook during those bleak months of the pandemic in 2020. She accepted.
“His name was David J. Armstrong. His wife was in a car accident. He had it down verbatim, the whole story,” Sharon, who chose not to share her last name, explained to News 2’s sister station, WATE.
Armstrong built up trust with Sharon, told her he was working on an oil rig off the coast of England, and was attracted to her.
“He would email me, or text me, a nice long love letter every night: ‘Are you in bed darling? I hope you are comfortable. Did you sleep well?’ He sent me a rose once. I’m just going deeper and deeper into this,” said Sharon.
Through messages, Armstrong claimed things had gone wrong on the oil rig. He asked her to send him money so they could be together soon.
Tennessee enacted a law in 2017, known as the PAUSE Law, which gives financial institutions the authority to delay or refuse transactions that may exploit an older or vulnerable adult.
“If every bank and financial institution in this state would use that law then we would be able to protect people better,” said Aaron Bradley, the Director of East Tennessee’s Area Agency on Aging.
Sharon’s primary bank did exactly that when she asked for a big cashier’s check.
“They started to do it. The teller said, ‘I need to make a call.’ I guess they called the main bank. They said, ‘It’s a scam, we’re not going to do it,'” said Sharon.
That didn’t deter Sharon, who went to another bank.
“And they did it, freely. They did it twice for me. No problem whatsoever,” said Sharon.
She was unaware of the hoax, while others were suspicious.
“My friends told me, my kids told me,” said Sharon. “My heart told me, he really did love me. I kept saying, ‘how do you know you love me when you haven’t even met me?'”
According to Sharon, Armstrong responded, “I can tell by the way you talk, I can tell by your pictures.” She fell for it.
Over six months, Sharon sent close to $150,000 to Armstrong.
“I don’t know why I didn’t believe anybody. I was so cocksure he was going to pay it back. I mean, he loved me for crying out loud. Go figure,” said Sharon.
“We all could fall prey to this. These con artists are professionals, they are professionals,” said Bradley, adding that banks are not using the PAUSE Law as much as they should. “If they did, folks would not lose their money. They may be angry, but they will still have their money in the bank.”
The Federal Trade Commission said the most common fake occupation given by romance scammers is that of someone in the military or an offshore oil rig worker. In addition, the sad story Sharon was given is the most repeated. The so-called boyfriend is a widower, who is stuck on the rig, or is trying to get off the military base, but needs money to do so. Once the scammers successfully receive the first payment, they don’t give up.
Sharon has a direct warning for others.
“No, no, don’t do it. Whatever, no matter what you think bottom line, don’t do it, because you will lose every dime you send. Every dime,” said Sharon.