Norm Jones didn’t know who to turn to.
What he thought was a whirlwind romance had fallen apart. The woman he had been talking to almost every day for five months was not who he claimed to be. The $250,000 he had invested in supporting her, his life savings and retirement, was gone. He would have to sell the house.
This was not supposed to happen to him. Jones, 54, spent his career working in telecommunications and cybersecurity in the Silicon Valley area. However, he had fallen for an internet scam that experts say has become more potent and appears to be increasingly related to self-harm.
In March, emergency personnel found Jones unconscious in her bathroom after she attempted suicide.
«My dad thought he was dead,» he told NBC News. «Also my brother and everyone.»
Jones is better. He is on the mend and said he wanted to share his story about what cybersecurity experts and suicide prevention advocates say is a pernicious and underreported problem: romance scams.
“I would love to help one person in the world never go through what I went through,” he said.
Romance scams date back centuries and have been a mainstay of Internet scammers. But some scammers have devised methods so personally brutal and financially devastating that self-harm is a growing concern for victims.
Scams that once bilked victims out of hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars via gift cards are now increasingly convincing them to move their investment and retirement accounts to bogus investment schemes. Those schemes have been fueled by the rise of cryptocurrency as a tempting way to get rich quick and also as a mechanism for scammers to move large amounts of cash in ways that are nearly impossible to recover.
“To me, it’s a public health crisis that I don’t think we’re talking about,” said Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for AARP’s Fraud Watch Network.
While the organization doesn’t record suicide threats or deaths as a specific statistic, it has become «almost an everyday occurrence» to refer a victim to a suicide hotline, he said.
The scam has two phases: gaining the victim’s trust by cultivating a fake romantic relationship for weeks or months, and then convincing the victim to invest money in a scheme that makes it look like they’re getting rich. Actually, her money is already gone.
The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center classifies these scams as investment scams, also sometimes called “pig slaughterscams. An FBI report found that victims reported losing a total of $3.3 billion in 2022, more than double the losses reported in 2021.
The Federal Trade Commission recorded a record $496 million from victims of romance scams last year, a spokesman said. The FTC and FBI reports are based entirely on what victims report to them, which means they likely won’t be counted. There are few other authoritative figures on the scam, including information on the demographics of the victims.
In April, the Justice Department announced a rare victory: it had Virtual currency seized worth around $112 million linked to romance investment scams.
Erin West, an assistant district attorney who heads the high-tech crime unit in Santa Clara County, California, said romance scammers are becoming «increasingly adept» at scamming victims out of every possible dollar.
“We describe it as a spell cast on these victims. Despite endless hours with their banker or his children or a law enforcement officer, they cannot be deterred from this,” he said.
The effects on victims are also becoming more severe, West said.
“Desperation is incredible. And we are seeing more and more victims threatening suicide, experiencing suicide attempts, committing themselves to psychiatric facilities because they feel suicidal,” he said.
Jones’ scammer, who used the name Aranya, first messaged her on Facebook in November. She let her guard down when he saw that she was already friends with several of her Facebook friends.
Although he preferred Signal, the messaging app of choice for much of the cybersecurity industry, he agreed with Aranya to chat primarily through text chats on Telegram, a messaging app. known to be popular with con artists. They also spoke from time to time on the phone.
Aranya quickly became his online girlfriend and an important part of his life. He found her beautiful and brilliant. She seemed to live a high-society, high-performance life that she said she financed with cryptocurrency investments. He would take her phone and send her text messages while she would walk around Los Gatos and write him songs that they would sing together. Meanwhile, she would pressure him to invest money through a crypto website, eventually convincing him to try to get a loan against her house to get more funds.
Jones finally became suspicious in February. They had made plans to meet in New York City: he had friends there, and she said that she had planned to stay at her uncle’s luxury apartment in Manhattan. But after he arrived, she changed her story, saying that she was in Seattle and he suspected something was seriously wrong.
By March, Jones was spiraling. His credit had sunk. He was unable to get the money from him from the crypto site. He filed a report with the FBI but received no response. He estimated that he had lost more than $250,000 and owed penalties for collecting on his 401(k) and feared that he would not be able to keep his house. On top of that, he felt humiliated and hurt because he couldn’t trust Aranya anymore.
Heidi Kar, senior counsel for trauma and mental health at the Education Development Center, a nonprofit group that oversees various suicide prevention programs, said that while it’s impossible to get nuanced data on the subject, suicides are no longer being reported and most families do not. Publicly reveal details of the victim’s motivation: Romance investment scams combine two main causes of suicide.
“Two of the most common reasons people will switch from thinking about it to acting are the dissolution of a romantic relationship, whether real or not, and the threat of financial ruin,” he said. «So as these types of scams increase, we have to expect more people who have been affected to die by suicide.»
Concerns about self-harm and romance scams arise during what US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called a “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”
Ashley, 36, said she had no idea her father, Joe Bleibtrey, was caught up in a romance investment scam until after his death. She pieced together a lot of that by looking at her phone after he killed himself in January. As with Jones, Bleibtrey’s scammer showed up on Facebook and convinced him to move their conversation to Telegram.
For four months, a person whom Bleibtrey considered an online romantic partner convinced him to dump virtually everything he had—his savings and his two retirement accounts totaling about $500,000—into a bogus plan that made it appear that he was making a fortune investing in cryptocurrency. He committed suicide shortly after realizing the woman’s story was not true and her savings were stolen.
“This person was fulfilling something for my dad in that romantic way that he might not be fulfilling in another way and unfortunately built enough trust for him to take this risk,” said Ashley, who asked that her last name not be used. for professional reasons.
She said the fallout has been difficult to deal with as she tries to juggle her life, grieving over her father and her father’s debts.
“It’s not like a typical grieving process when you have collectors calling you or looking for the estate or you’re dealing with court or trying to figure taxes because, I mean, he owes a significant amount of taxes because of his IRA withdrawal. or Roth accounts,” he said. «You can’t just cry.»
Jones is now focused on recovery. After months in a crisis center, he moved in with one of his best friends who lives in Gilroy. He is selling his house to cover his debts and is working on healing himself, both mentally and physically, and spending time with his brother and his father.
In April, Jones sent Aranya a graphic photo of his recovery, telling her that’s where the desperation of his scam led him. The message is marked on Telegram as read and his account is still active, but Aranya did not reply.
«I’m accepting what happened a little better now,» he said. «All we can do is move on.»
“My family knows it and I know that I will survive. And I’m grateful to be here.»
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741, or visit TalkingSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.