Harris County man loses $800K in romance crypto scam as area sees ‘exponential’ growth in crime

FBI Houston is getting reports weekly

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas – It’s a new twist on a classic scam that’s affecting people of all ages, according to FBI Houston, whether you’re looking for love or not.

Houston’s FBI Field Office is receiving a new report of money lost in cryptocurrency investment scams as frequently as every week, Asst. Special Agent in Charge of White Collar Crimes Heith Janke said in an exclusive interview with KPRC 2.

“They will take everything that they can get their hands on,” Janke said. "We have seen people lose their entire life savings. We’ve seen elderly lose their entire retirement accounts due to this scam.”

According to new data from the FBI, cryptocurrency investment scams have led to more than $82.7 million in losses in the Houston area over the last 16 months.

Much of the money can move overseas within minutes and is going to countries in southeast Asia and west Africa, Janke said.

“Once you’ve made that transaction and it’s gone, it’s extremely hard to ever return that money to the victims,” he said.

“How are they pitching it?” KPRC 2′s Bryce Newberry asked.

“They try to contact you and in a number of ways,” Janke said, “then they just they start a relationship.”

Examples of those ways could include a LinkedIn message, a simple text message from an unknown number, or through dating apps, he said.

For a Harris County man, it started on a dating app similar to Ashley Madison last summer. Thinking he met his match, he spent a couple months exchanging messages with the new romantic interest, Harris County District Attorney’s Office chief cybercrimes prosecutor Keith Houston said.

“He lost over $800,000,” Houston said. “He thought he was doing a legitimate investment.”

The person on the other end of the phone discussed finances and making good returns through crypto investing, Houston said, which is how they convinced the Harris County man to get involved.

He made what he thought was a $140,000 investment in cryptocurrency on a third party app that the other person sent him a link to download, Houston said.

A fraudulent account dashboard, which was shared by the scammer, showed that his money had grown to $1.7 million.

When he decided to cash out, Houston said it got worse because the scammer asked for hundreds of thousands more for fees and audits.

“Finally he just realized that he was never going to see any of the 1.7 million,” Houston said.

Investigators were able to track less than 20 percent of the Harris County man’s stolen $800,000 to crypto wallets, Houston said, and he’s expected to get that amount back after a judge recently ordered restitution.

The rest of the crypto made several hops away from the original source, he said, which made it even more difficult to connect to the stolen money.

Houston added that people on the other end of these scams are usually following a script and communicating with multiple people at once.

“There are a lot of people who are really desperate to have a relationship,” said Dr. John Vincent, a clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of Houston.

“When someone is in the mindset of finding love, how difficult is it to convince them that they’re being scammed?” Newberry asked.

“Often very difficult. It’s often the case that, you know, they really believe the person they’re talking to and these folks can be incredibly persuasive,” Vincent said, adding that more desperation for a relationship may mean increased vulnerability for a scam.

For family or friends concerned about someone they know being scammed, Vincent recommended asking questions like these:

  • Have you ever actually seen this person?
  • Have you done something with FaceTime?
  • Have you done any work to check out their background?
  • Have you assessed anything about their credibility?

"We kind of work in a virtual world these days, and I think what’s happened is a lot of folks come to trust that when they’re interacting with somebody online, that there’s a real person there and that person is representing themselves honestly. And we know that that’s not often the case. We know that people make stuff up, they lie, they invent profiles that don’t exist,” Vincent said. “There has to be a certain degree of kind of healthy skepticism about what, you know, transpires online.”

Crypto scammers are international, sophisticated criminal networks, Janke said.

While millions have already been reported lost, the amount may actually be higher because he said some are ashamed to admit they fell for it.

"When it comes to romance scams, people may be embarrassed that they got swindled and they don’t want to report it to law enforcement,” Janke said. “We know how these fraudsters and these criminal networks do this so we understand how people can fall for it."

The longer it takes for law enforcement to get involved, Janke said recovery of the money is less likely.

Recommendations from law enforcement to protect yourself:

  • Don’t respond to unsolicited messages
  • Never give money to someone you haven’t met
  • Reverse image search people you meet online to determine if they’re real
  • Only download legit cryptocurrency apps, never from a third party
  • Assume a quick, significant return on investment may be fraud
  • Go through known exchanges for crypto investments

About the Author

Bryce Newberry joined KPRC 2 in July 2022. He loves the thrill of breaking news and digging deep on a story that gets people talking.

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