Breaking the Silence: Romance scams most often target seniors


Vulnerable seniors are often victims of scams that hit their pocketbooks. Those who are victimized usually live alone or have physical limitations.

Scams targeting the elderly is big business, it’s a frightening epidemic, especially for those who are unaware.   

For scammers, Facebook appears to be an easy way to contact potential victims. One of those WATE 6 On Your Side talked with lost her life’s savings. The other confessed she should have known better.  

“Plain and simple. I was an idiot,” said Pat Wilhoit.

Wilhoit admits she made a costly mistake when she started corresponding with a man who she thought was Paul Stewart. The picture, however, was copied. But she didn’t know that.  

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It started with a friend request on Facebook. Describing himself as a high ranking US Army officer, Stewart claimed he was in Syria on a peacekeeping mission. Wilhoit, a former Marine, admitted she was smitten by him. She fell hard after he sent her love messages.

“He wanted to make love to me, hold me in his arms, kiss me,” said Wilhoit.

Convinced of his affection, Wilhoit wired $5,600 so her so-called boyfriend could fly to Tennessee.

“Elder victims are very vulnerable. We have had cases of pretending to have befriended someone online,” said Nora Monday.

Nora Monday, of Community Health of East Tennessee, is an expert on elder abuse. She says imposter online scammers are usually from overseas. To prosecute them, the scammer first must be identified. However, finding international imposters is next to impossible. 

A woman named Rhonda, who did not want her last name published, borrowed more than $3,700 to send in a bank-to-bank transfer to an imposter, in this case, a Derick Wayne. 

Rhonda spends a lot of time on Facebook. With severe Parkison’s disease, she’s homebound. After corresponding for months, her online “friend” sent a text saying he had come into a lot of money following a court judgment. 

“They awarded him $980,000,” Rhonda said.

The phony Derick Wayne told Rhonda he wanted to make her a partner share the loot, but first, he needed her to pay some fees for him. She took the bait and sent the money.

Romance scams exploit a senior’s loneliness and vulnerability. Once trust is built between the two, the scammer then requests money, according to a federal Committee on Aging Report.

“The current financial scams, especially the romantic scams, are especially savvy. It looks real,” said Dr. Monica Crane.

She specializes in geriatrics, the medical care of older adults. She says sometimes cognitive judgment diminishes for some older people, especially if there are physical issues and limitations.

“For a lot of people, if they look at the internet, it is real. If someone sends a photo, it must be the real person. What we find is people have trouble distinguishing something that is too good to be true from something that is actually a benefit,” Crane said.

Rhonda borrowed heavily against her house to pay off her debt. Pat Wilhoit never saw her money again either. If you have an older friend or relative who lives alone, find out who they may be talking with if they use social media.

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