Editor’s note: October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and each week Blue Sky will be featuring a story about cybersecurity and related issues to highlight the importance of digital safety in airports and beyond.
Less than a month ago, a woman in her 60s showed up at Pittsburgh International Airport, ready to meet her military boyfriend for the first time in person.
She waited for hours, finally asking the customer service representatives when the flight from Madrid would arrive.
No such flight existed.
“She had gotten contacted on Facebook and they started talking online,” said Kelli Finnerty, the airport customer service representative who spoke with the woman. “She said he was a major general in the U.S. military and he needed her to send money in order to get him home from his military service.”
The major general never showed up. Instead, the woman was the victim of an online romance scam – and out $3,000.
Last year, more than 18,000 people across the country were similarly victimized, losing an estimated $362 million to online scammers, according to FBI crime statistics.
In many cases, airports are the unwitting front lines of this crime.
“It happens all the time – people standing there with flowers, asking when a (nonexistent) flight is coming in,” Finnerty said. “In this case, she told me she sent him two wire transfers for a total of $3,000. … She kept saying, ‘I know him. He’s coming.’”
Airport customer service officials said they see people at least once a month, sometimes more frequently, who likely have been scammed. They do their best to comfort victims and encourage them to contact police, though many don’t because they’re embarrassed.
That’s not a surprise to Kathy Waters, who co-founded an organization in Fresno, Calif., dedicated to raising awareness about the issue. She has met with social media companies and congressional officials to look for solutions.
Through her group, Advocating Against Romance Scammers, Waters has heard countless stories.
“The scammers, they learn different stories,” she said. “They often say they’re engineers working overseas or in the military. Many times women will fill out forms with their personal information, Social Security number, name, or they’ll send them money for an airline ticket.
“We’ve met with the FBI on this and they think we’re just scratching the surface with the (number of) reports.”
Waters said the scammers are mostly based overseas, with many operating out of Nigeria and other African nations. They send mass emails, most of which are deleted. But they occasionally find success with vulnerable people who may have lost loved ones through divorce or death sometimes they even connect with married people.
Waters wants to raise awareness and put pressure on social media platforms to better police their sites and warn users.
“With the male victims, they pose as models or women in the military. Everyone wants to help a soldier. And they often put a child in the story – maybe the child needs surgery. It’s emotional and psychological manipulation,” Waters said.
Airport customer service representatives said the scam is not limited to romance. People who wired money for puppies or other pets show up for a nonexistent flight to collect a dog that never comes. But it’s the emotional romance scams that are the hardest to see.
Customer service rep Sharon Haynes said she talked with a woman who showed up with piles of luggage waiting to meet her online boyfriend so they could fly off together.
“She waited in the seating area for a couple of days. I don’t think she had much money and she told me she had cashed in her savings and wired the guy money for his flight here. She just couldn’t believe that he wasn’t coming,” Haynes said. “It’s incredibly sad.”
Waters said people can go to her website to find our more information or share their stories. Scams affect a wide age range and both men and women, she said.
Many scammers steal online profiles from others, particularly military members. They operate from their phones and work several victims at the same time, according to a New York Times report in July.
“I remember one gentleman, he was a small, frail man and you could tell he was kind of shy. He stood by my (customer service) desk all day with flowers and nobody showed up. He came every day for a week,” said Candy Cooper, who retired from the airport a few years ago.
“You could see he was ready to cry. I talked to him and he told me they met online six months ago. He had sent her $850. I told him, ‘I hate to say this, but we see these scams happen a lot.’ And he started crying and I started crying. It’s so sad.”