DES MOINES, Iowa — With the pandemic limiting face-to-face interactions, online dating has become more common—which has provided more opportunities for romance scammers.
One Iowan learned that the hard way. Angela Jiskoot is sharing her experience in the hopes it will help someone else avoid falling victim.
Jiskoot had been dating online for eight years, when she met who she believed to be Kels on Bumble.
"He was in Omaha, or at least as far as I know, and we matched and we started talking, and he seemed great, right?" Jiskoot said. "He told me [Kels] was a nickname, but his actual name is Keenan, as far as I know. That’s what his license said, his social security card said. He told me he was finishing residency near Omaha. He wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon.”
After a couple days of texting, he asked to Facetime, which Jiskoot thought would be a good way to make sure he was real.
They talked for a couple of weeks, and decided he would visit Des Moines.
Jiskoot tried to learn more about him.
“Typically when you google anybody that’s went to residency school, a medical program, you find them up on Healthgrades, all kinds of things right?” she said. “He did not exist online. You could not find him.”
When they met in person, she said he looked like a different person from the picture he posted on Bumble.
Still, they started a relationship.
Within two months, he asked to move in, telling her he needed a place to stay. She said it was too soon, but he persisted. Ultimately, she allowed it, saying it was temporary.
“This guy is your prince charming and everything you’ve been looking for, and he knows exactly the right things to say, the seeds to plant, the texts to send. He love bombed right at the beginning," Jiskoot said.
But Kels would turn on her in an instant when she asked for validation.
“Passive aggressiveness, gaslighting, love bombing. He was so good and so manipulative in everything he said and so convincing, it’s like he oozed that he wanted you to believe him," Jiskoot said.
To make his residency more believable, she believes he started using an app called Text Now, which allows users to pose as other people.
“He started to create other fake phone numbers, like 515 numbers, text me and pretend to be residents at MercyOne, and say, 'Hey, can you come for my shift for me? Can you have Keenan cover my shift? I can’t get a hold of him and I have a family emergency.'"
Eventually, Jiskoot found out Kels wasn't a resident and never went to medical school. It seemed like he was lying about everything.
Then, she says there were unexpected charges to her accounts.
“He did $700 worth of credit fraud on my credit cards. I caught all of it," Jiskoot said. "At that point, red flags were screaming everywhere.”
Jiskoot realized she was a victim of catfishing—a romance scheme where fraudsters lure someone into a relationship under false pretenses.
How "catfishers" operate
Des Moines Police Department Sgt. Paul Parizek has investigated these con artists.
“They’re evil geniuses for sure. They’re very savvy,” Parizek said. “They know what they’re doing and unfortunately, they’re out there to hurt people.
“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors on their end of who they are and where they’re at and navigating through that can be time consuming and it can be a challenge for us and it doesn’t give a victim a whole lot of sense of security when we run into those obstacles.”
Parizek explains perpetrators often talk about trauma in their life to earn their victims’ sympathy, and excuse why they’re not traceable online.
Parizek recommends using Google's reverse image search, which will show where else a picture is being used online—like if it's listed under another name.
When Local 5 looked up Kels' image, there was no trace.
Jiskoot, like many victims, has had to forgive herself for the experience.
“How did I fall for this? Right? How did I not see the signs?" she said. “I should have known, and I should've been better, and I should've taken steps to get out of it... But they are masters at what they do, and the trickery and the deception is so deep that you can't claw your way out of it.”
Look out for yourself and others
Sonya Sellmuire, consumer advocacy officer for the Iowa Insurance Division, helps people recover from romance scams.
“Please check in on your friends and family,” Sellmuire urged. “See who they’re talking to, see who’s coming into their house—check in with them, have that line of communication open, and maybe they’ll open up. Just saying these stories out loud raises your awareness that maybe it’s not what you think it is.”
Sergeant Parizek assures victims this is not their fault:
“As we see adults get victimized, and successful adults, adults who typically have gone through their lives thinking, ‘I’m a pretty normal person and I’m a pretty aware person and this isn’t going to happen to me and it did.’ There is some shame that they feel, and there is no shame with us in being a victim of a crime."
He also said it's important to report those incidents.
“You have to remember that if you don’t tell someone that this happened to you, it is going to happen to someone else," Parizek said. "I don’t think a lot of people when they think about that, want to carry that weight.”
Jiskoot said she reported Kels to police, taking that first step. Now, she hopes sharing her story will spare others from being preyed on, or give someone the courage to get out of a dangerous situation.
“I know people say trust your gut, but man that is so true," Jiskoot said. "I had to learn the hard way, and I'm also grateful I learned it and nothing worse happened to me.”
Parizek said scammers will often tell victims a sob story to make them feel sympathetic.
If you think you may be the victim of a romance scam, contact local police or the FBI. You can also contact Iowa Insurance Division here.
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