"Words with Friends" is a lot similar to Scrabble. You can chat with opponents, but like with any online platform, sometimes strangers aren't there for fun - they're there to commit fraud.
One woman, who wants to remain anonymous, learned the hard way after meeting someone on the app who wasn't who they said they were. She felt a bond. So much so, she was willing to send him $305,000.
"People will say things in chats and they will say things because they're living out a fantasy that they've created in their mind," said Detective Steve Craig with the Springfield Township Police in Pennsylvania.
The entire ordeal started when a woman had someone congratulate her in the chat while she played "Words with Friends 2."
He introduced himself as Military General Stephen Townsend. He said he was stationed in Afghanistan. But according to police, he was an imposter.
"This poor guy. He's got this established military career, but scammers are using his name for love schemes," Craig said.
The woman was asked to send cashier's checks to a UPS mailbox. The imposter told her he was retiring from the military and needed her help getting a package to the United States. But the story got more complicated and more strange.
The person told her the package was a case filled with $850,000, but it was stuck in customs and he needed help paying fees to get it out. All in all, she sent checks for $305,000. She was told a diplomat named Alan Echtenkamp would pick up the checks.
"This person gave UPS to get that mailbox all kinds of personal information, but that didn't help with the investigation?" the I-Team's Kristin Byrne asked Detective Craig.
"Not at all," he said.
"Everything was fake. Fake phone numbers, fake email address, fake passport, fake name," he added.
Surveillance video was of no use either.
"During COVID-19, everybody has a mask on, everybody has a hat on. So, there's really nothing there to use," he said.
Craig says the case hit a roadblock and Detective Craig is doubtful this woman will get her money back. The woman who fell victim to the fraud is married. The money she lost was a family inheritance.
The FTC says people reported losing $304 million in romance scams in 2020. That's up 50% from 2019. The federal agency says during the last four years, reports of this type of fraud keep climbing.
"You know these social media or game apps where we really don't expect that scammers are going to be lurking, that's exactly where they're looking for us because they know our guard is going to be down," said Fraud Prevention Adviser Seth Boffeli with the AARP.
Boffeli says these kinds of criminals don't ask for money right away. First, they form a connection. Also, he says the storylines sometimes have similar themes.
"The military is one we see a lot because one, it has that overseas element. But two, people have that strong affinity for the military," Boffeli said.
TMJ4 contacted the developer of Words with Friends games for comment and we're waiting for a response.
TMJ4 also contacted the U.S. Army, specifically the U.S. Africa Command, where the real General Townsend is stationed. A spokesperson provided the below statement:
"Unfortunately, there are many scammers impersonating military leaders, service members, and other high-profile personalities on social media sites. These scammers often have the intent of soliciting money.
Our command and other DoD organizations are constantly working to dismantle these fraudulent accounts, however, typically the people committing these scams use untraceable email addresses in foreign countries, route their accounts through numerous locations around the world, and use pay-per-hour Internet cyber cafes, which oftentimes maintain no accountability of use.
Please never send money to these individuals. If you feel you have been scammed by a person claiming to be a U.S. Soldier, please report the incidents to both the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center and the Federal Trade Commission."
Below are some places to go for help:
- Report the theft to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
- Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission. Your report helps law enforcement officials across the United States in their investigations.
- By phone: 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338) or TTY, 1-866-653-4261
- By mail: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580
- Report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission on Nigerian Scams. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally reported by Kristin Byrne on tmj4.com