Words with Friends, the wildly popular Scrabble-like online game, has become a haven for fraudsters targeting older women and their bank accounts in the proliferating digital world of romance scamming.
Anyone who plays WWF—as is it commonly called—or any other online game should be wary of other players who want to establish an online relationship through instant messaging, particularly if questions get personal about age, appearance, or a living situation.
Federal Trade Commission data show consumers reported losing $201 million to romance scams in 2019—a spike of nearly 40% from 2018.
In one example, a 75-year-old woman in the Portland, Oregon, area had a months-long relationship with a WWF player who claimed to be a lonely Italian man working on an oil rig off the coast of Texas, AARP reports. The scammer started asking the woman for gift cards to call his children, but eventually convinced her to start making bank wire transfers. She eventually lost her life savings of $137,000, and it was only when the fraudster asked the victim to sell her home and jewelry that she realized it was an elaborate hoax.
“We’re not catching these people and they’re not going to jail,” investigating Detective Patrick Altiere of the Washington County (Oregon) Sheriff’s Office, told AARP. “The people who are targeted are afflicted with loneliness. Loneliness is insipid, and does crazy things to people and makes them do things they wouldn’t normally do.”
Older adults are particularly vulnerable to romance scams now due to loneliness and isolation caused by the pandemic.
Zynga, the San Francisco-based gaming company that created WWF, issues a warning to players on its own website to “never give your account password” or other details to any other player. It also says “not to click on any links” sent to you and to “delete anyone bothering you” from your friends list.
Brad Berens, chief digital strategist at the University of Southern California’s Center for the Digital Future, wrote about his mother being contacted by a WWF scam artist, and he has these tips to stay safe online:
- Don’t play online games with people you don’t know in real life.
- If you do play with strangers—and you shouldn’t—don’t share personal information.
- Never send money to people you don’t know.
- If you are ever tempted to send money to a stranger, first have a “sanity check” with a friend or relative. If you’re too embarrassed to talk to a trusted person, your gut may be telling you the person wanting your cash isn’t who they claim to be.
- Research your case by pasting some of the message you received into Google and see if it is a script that shows up elsewhere.
- Change your profile picture if it’s a photo of yourself to something like a pet or favorite place.
If you or a friend or loved one is struggling with a financial decision, the Department of Consumer Affairs licenses more than 100,000 professionals through the California Board of Accountancy and Professional Fiduciaries Bureau to answer your questions. Professional licenses can always be checked at https://search.dca.gov.