SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - More people are turning to the internet to find love during the pandemic, but it can come with a high price.
According to the FTC, $300 million was lost to romance scams during 2020. That's a 50% increase from the year before.
ABC 10News recently met Margie McLellan at Lake Murray. She's got a hearing impairment and other physical disabilities. She described her hurt and anger.
"It really hurts. I'm very, very angry and very upset," she said.
Last summer, McLellan joined an online dating platform.
The widow was looking for love during the pandemic when she matched with a profile. ABC 10News is not showing the face, since the real man's identity was likely stolen.
"She was very excited in the beginning, and I was excited for her but then she became very quiet about the relationship by saying, 'It's very private and he doesn't want me discussing it with anyone,'" said close friend Trish Testa who added that McLellan and the new man never met. They only texted.
"We were texting. I can't hear so [we were] texting," said McLellan.
"She thought that she was going to be moving to Las Vegas with him," added Testa.
They started making plans. Testa said, "She put the house up for sale. Her family had contacted the realtor and told her to please try and not sell it, but the realtor said, 'I can't do that. I've been hired by her, and I could lose my job.'"
Yet just as many online dating scams go, he wrote to her that he suddenly had to leave the country to take care of family affairs. Then he wrote that he became ill with COVID-19. "He got sick. He got COVID," said McLellan.
She had already mailed him money and he soon disappeared. "I mailed a check," she told ABC 10News.
Basically, she doesn't have any money. She doesn't have a house. She's homeless," said Testa.
The grief was so overwhelming for McLellan to relive with ABC 10News that she put her head down and sobbed.
"Someone's being victimized. They're not the lone victim of [that] fraudster. They are probably one of many," said Special Agent Bill McNamara with the FBI in San Diego.
He confirmed that agents and analysts have received McLellan's case through IC3, the Bureau's Internet Crime Complaint Center.
In a February 2021 podcast from the FBI, a speaker states, "According to the IC3, more than 23,000 people were victims of romance scams in 2020 and during that year, people lost more than $600 million and it's likely that many more scams actually went unreported."
Last September, the FBI announced that a Nigerian national was convicted for a money laundering conspiracy related to a romance scam and other fraud schemes.
"She refused to believe that she was being scammed," said Testa.
"Everything's all a lie. His story. Everything," said McLellan. Testa added, "He showed her a bank statement showing that he had millions."
Experts say that spoofing technology enables scammers to stay hidden. "Part of the issue is that the victim doesn't even know where the subject is residing or where the subject is contacting them from so when they relay that information to law enforcement, they're not even sure where the perpetrator is," Special Agent McNamara told ABC 10News.
Despite the challenges in tracking down perpetrators, the FBI still wants victims to file reports through IC3 so that agents can look for common threads.
McLellan is aware that she may never get justice. "Be careful. You never know. [They could be] all fake pictures or fake profiles," she added.
The La Mesa Police Department confirmed that it's also investigating McLellan's case.