NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – A Texas woman is speaking out for the first time about the romance scam that cost her close to $200,000.
She is afraid of becoming a target again so CBS 11 News is not revealing her identity.
“Jane” says she was adapting to a new way of life in 2018 after her husband of 25 years died. She moved into a new home, bought a new phone and spent a lot of time on social media interacting with friends and strangers.
One man came on strong right away, using a line from a famous Bruno Mars song: “I think I wanna marry you.” His profile had Mars’ name and photos, so Jane assumed it was the famous singer just looking for someone to talk to.
They spent weeks trading messages and memes; she shared details about her life, her family, even her finances. “That’s the first thing they do, is try to be your friend,” said Jane. “Get to know you and be comfortable with you.”
“Bruno” said he was in a bind; he needed $5,000 to help pay for rental cars he’d used on tour. When Jane didn’t immediately say no, he asked for more. “It went from five to ten, then we started getting bigger.”
Jane sent a cashier’s check for $10,000, but “Bruno” said he needed more help – more money for his tour. “The next thing I knew, I was going to the bank and cashing out all my bonds,” said Jane. She handed over another cashier’s check, this time for $90,000.
Jane and Bruno’s messages were filled with declarations of love and devotion. She received an engagement ring in the mail. It arrived in a priority envelope from Houston with “Mars’” name in the return address. “It wasn’t like we were in love – like love-love – it was more like I was in love with his talent,” Jane told CBS 11.
Jane says the relationship consumed her life. She was up all night answering messages while her days were spent collecting cashier’s checks and making withdrawals from her bank. She couldn’t explain why she didn’t tell anyone about the relationship. She just bought in and let herself believe.
The Bruno imposter told her he was unhappy with his tour and all the traveling. He asked to come live with her in North Richland Hills. Jane bought music equipment – guitars, drums, microphones – and made room for the entire band. “I put up some bunk beds for them,” she said. “I set up a studio in my garage.”
Then – another text message emergency. “Mars’” plan had been detained at Dulles Airport. Jane received a copy of a police report that said “Mars” was in custody until he paid fees to the airport and pilots. “They were constantly showing me pictures of them in jail – pictures of Bruno Mars in jail,” said Jane. One image showed a headshot of the real Bruno Mars edited onto a stock image of a man in handcuffs. Jane was desperate to make the online relationship real. She gathered money for his bond and texted a photo of the stacks of cash and money orders.
That’s when the scammers became even bolder: one of them came to her front door. “Bruno had someone come here to get that money so they could get him out of jail,” said Jane. “It had to be quickly of course, the security guard needed the money right now, everything was an emergency.”
She handed over the money and waited for “Bruno” to be released. Soon she received more messages: he wanted to fly to Texas right away but he needed $5,000 for jet fuel.
After months and months of giving, Jane finally realized she’d been scammed. She refused to hand over any more money until “Bruno” repaid some of what she’d loaned him.
“They threatened to poison and kill me if I didn’t get them the money. That’s how it got toward the end,” said Jane. “As you start giving to these people, they just want more and more and more.”
Jane contacted police. Investigators traced the cashier’s checks to two Nigerian citizens in Houston. Both are charged with money laundering, but prosecutors believe the mastermind – the Mars imposter – is overseas. “I’m so ashamed that this happened to me,” said Jane. “I’m so sorry that I helped this person, even though I thought it was a famous person.”
She is more careful on social media now, and she’s increased security at her home. But even after everything she’s been through, she’s still a fan of the real Bruno Mars. “If he got on Instagram and said ‘hey, I need some help,’ I’d help him out,” she laughed.
While this is an extreme example, the FBI says romance scams are on the rise. Last year more than 23,000 victims reported more than $605 million in losses. That’s compared to 2015 when there were just over 12,000 victims and $203 million in losses.