WESTFIELD — Pat Breitkreuz became a widow in 2020.
“I was very lonely after that,” said Pat.
The Westfield woman went on a dating website for older adults and met a match—a man named Lewis.
"He told me he was 62, and I told him I was 83 and he said age is just a number,” said Breitkreuz.
Pat says Lewis had an accent that made it hard to understand him on the phone.
He encouraged her to text him away from the dating website - and they exchanged hundreds of intimate messages.
“Good Morning My Queen,” read one of the messages to Pat. “I hope you had enough rest last night. I pray for blessings and Grace for both of us. I love you."
In those texts, Lewis also sent pictures, supposedly of himself.
“It got extremely romantic,” said Breitkreuz. “He just drew me in. I fell in love with it. I fell in love with him."
Lewis claimed to work for a construction company in Montreal and convinced her to send him five checks to help support his business.
But the money wasn’t going to her lover, it was going into the scammers’ pockets.
In all, she sent them $98,547.
“It makes me ill,” said Breitkreuz. “I just want to throw up that I was that vulnerable.”
Lewis made plans to visit Pat, even sending her a picture of a plane ticket with his name on it.
“He said we would probably spend 24 hours in bed,” said Breitkreuz.
Lewis never showed up.
Pat Breitkreuz says she started to realize it was a scam when Lewis sent her a contract asking for $500,000 to invest in his construction business.
The contract listed a Fort Wayne address, but when she checked it out in person, it was bogus.
“He stopped calling and texting after about 30 days when I realized I didn't have any more money,” said Breitkreuz. “I was heartbroken."
Romance scams are big business for criminals looking for personal information and money.
“I got scammed big time and it hurts financially and emotionally,” said Pat.
Romance scam complaints grew 25% from 2019 to 2021, according to the FBI.
Victim losses hit a whopping $1 billion in 2021, records show.
Many love scams originate overseas, making it difficult for the FBI and the Indiana Attorney General’s Office to hold scammers accountable.
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“These are very sophisticated operations,” said Scott Barnhart, director of consumer protection at the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. “A lot of this is offshore and it's very difficult to pursue foreign entities in foreign countries. They focus on getting the money but once it gets offshore, it's very difficult for us to track it and trace it and try and catch the bad guys."
Barnhart says romance scams are different from other scams in that they prey on people’s heartstrings and the scams often last for weeks or months.
“When you think about other scams, it’s one hit and out. But romance scams are so lucrative because people convince themselves—'well this person has been communicating with me for months, there’s no way this is a scam,’” said Barnhart. “It is the patience the scammers have to get a reward at the end of weeks or months long relationship that is the difference. Other scams, it’s I get my money and I’m out.”
Barnhart says Pat Breitkreuz missed common red flags including:
- Encouraging you to communicate off the dating website
- Asking you to send them money or invest in a business
- Not wanting to meet in person or talk on FaceTime
WRTV Investigates used reverse imaging on the photos Lewis sent, and we couldn’t find anything.
“There are millions of images online that scammers have access to and pull off social media platforms,” said Barnhart. “It is easy to pull or scrape images online and present that to the other person, engage in this false perception that I am this person when I’m a person sitting in a conference room somewhere across the world.”
It’s still unclear where the scam originated.
A family member filed police reports on Pat’s behalf with Westfield Police and the FBI.
WRTV Investigates reached out to Westfield Police and received a response from the assistant chief.
“I have asked our Criminal Investigations Division to assess this report and determine if additional investigative actions are warranted,” said Asst. Police Chief Scott Jordan in an email to WRTV.
The FBI will not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
Breitkreuz isn’t confident she will get her money back, but she is confident she will find real love again.
“I’ll never be scammed again,” said Breitkreuz.
TIPS ON AVOIDING ROMANCE SCAMS:
- Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the image, name, or details have been used elsewhere.
- Go slowly and ask lots of questions.
- Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or social media site to communicate directly.
- Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
- Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse for why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
- NEVER send money, cryptocurrency, or gift cards to anyone you have only communicated with online or by phone, regardless of how in love you are or how in love they say they are with you.
- Never send or forward money for someone you haven’t met in person, and don’t act on their investment advice.
- Talk to friends or family about a new love interest and pay attention if they’re concerned.