“I keep hearing his words: ‘Connie, go out and enjoy this money,’” Connie Rotolo, 70, recalled. She was remembering the words of her dying husband of 45 years, whom she had taken care of for 10 years. “‘You deserve it. Go traveling like you always wanted to do, and we never got that opportunity. Connie, take care of yourself … I know I’m not going to make it.’”
Rotolo’s husband died in 2019, leaving his money as well as hers in their savings account. Then, bereaved and lonely as the coronavirus pandemic swept the world, she joined the dating site Zoosk in the summer of 2020. Before long Rotolo would lose her life savings of $475,000 to an alleged romance scammer.
Online for only three days in her Oceanside home, she got a message from a man who told her his name was Andrew Deckert, and that he was a civil engineer from Babylon working in Manila, in the Philippines. When he got back to the states, he wrote, they could go for coffee and a chat.
Messages from Deckert quickly turned into relentless love bombing, and at one point he declared, “Baby, I love you.” But Rotolo, who had never used online dating sites, was cautious, telling him, “I don’t even know you.”
“This is an addiction,” she said of the much-needed attention she was getting online. “People have to remember this. It’s like any other addiction: You hear it, you want more. You want to hear more that somebody’s in love with you. They’re going to take care of you. … Especially if you’re lonely.”
But things took a turn when Deckert started asking for money. “The stories went on and on and on,” Rotolo said. She ignored them all — until the threats came. Deckert said that their lives were in danger, and they would both be killed if she didn’t give him money.
“My thing was, OK, I don’t want to be killed,” Rotolo said. “So it started off with, over the two months, the 400-something thousand dollars.”
Within two months, Rotolo had sent Deckert a total of $475,000 in wire transfers. The situation became all too real when, she said, someone appeared outside her home and told her to stop using a private investigator to try to track down the scammer, saying “We’re going to get you and kill you,” she said. Terrified, she has since moved into another family home in Oceanside.
Rotolo was hopeful she would get all the money back when Deckert sent her a message saying he had signed a contract for $1.7 million, and sent documents “proving” it. He said that in order for her to be sent the money, she would need to open a Bank of America savings account, which she did, but the account was later shut down because the bank said it was being used for money laundering.
Rotolo didn’t go to the police because she was taking a chance on Deckert. “I was like, oh my God, you know, somebody’s paying attention after (my) caretaking for 10 years, I mean, this guy … you never know, and he was very nice in the beginning, really sweet. I mean, (he told you) anything you want to hear.”
Now, she says, the man has stolen what were supposed to be her golden years. “It was a very hard lesson for me,” she said. “It’s still hard for me. When I think about it, it just makes me ill. It does. Because I know how I am. And for me to give that kind of money out, I know I was not in my right mind. … It’s devastated me, it ruined me — he ruined my life.”
A newly hired private investigator, Paul Smester, who was in law enforcement for 25 years, said that the Chase branch where Rotolo kept her savings should have stopped her, or asked questions after noticing the amounts being withdrawn and her age. Rotolo and Smester have worked on creating a paper trail to help the multiple law enforcement agencies investigating her claims, including the Nassau County Police Department Fraud and Forgery Unit and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.
A call from the Herald to the U.S. attorney’s office went unanswered, as did an email to the NCPD’s Fraud and Forgery Unit.
Rotolo and Smester believe she was taken advantage of by an international scamming organization based in Ghana known as “the Enterprise.” It is known for conducting romance scams through various media such as online dating websites. It was in the news in February of last year when a Virginia man pleaded guilty to laundering tens of millions of dollars from dozens of victims across the United States.
A press release from the U.S. Department of Justice detailed how the operation worked: “They … deluded victims, many of whom were vulnerable older men and women who lived alone, into believing the victim was in a romantic relationship with a fake identity assumed by members of the Enterprise. Once members of the Enterprise had gained the trust of the victims using the fake identity, they used false pretenses to cause the victims to wire money to bank accounts the victims believed were controlled by their romantic interests, when in fact the bank accounts were controlled by members of the Enterprise.”
“They look through all these social media sites … to see whose spouses have passed away,” Smester said. “And then they, you know, they reach out, they do their research, and they target these vulnerable people, and that’s how they draw them in.”
Smester said he is holding her bank responsible, and that it “should have red-flagged all these transactions,” since Rotolo is older and made large withdrawals. “They definitely should have picked up on this,” he said.
Rotolo now warns others online that if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are.