When my grandma first spoke about her new boyfriend, Bram, something didn’t quite sit right with me. A few minutes into our weekly family FaceTime, my grandma excitedly announced to our whole family that she had a new beau. Maybe it was the photo she shared of him shaking hands with Joe Biden. Or maybe it was the lack of internet presence for a man important enough to pose alongside the President of the United States. Perhaps it was the paparazzi-style pictures Bram had shared, which looked as though they’d been ripped from a tabloid. Anyway, I knew, almost intuitively, that something was wrong. One week later, I learned I was right.
But before I get into it, I want to tell you a bit about the matriarch of my family. She’s a firecracker. Forget what you think you know about grandmas — there’s no orthopedic shoes, oversized sweaters, and excessive couch time. My grandma is more of the high heels, form-fitting black leggings, silky shirts, and gold bangles type of grandma.
She was never one to subscribe to the idea that women “give up” after a certain age. Her social calendar — marked with dinners, party invitations, and trips — puts my own to shame. Yet despite her vivacity, as a single woman well into her golden years, I suspect that she may feel lonely at times. Beneath her dazzling exterior, there is a tender underbelly just as exposed as the rest of us. An underbelly that Bram made his target.
Much like catfishing, a romance scammer, according to the Federal Trade Commission, is someone who fabricates an online profile with the intention of luring someone in. Whether hunting for victims on social media or dating apps, these scammers have one goal in mind: to finagle money out of unsuspecting people. Too often, the victims of romance scams tend to be elderly women in their 70s or 80s. With a foundation of lies, the scammers will pull on the heartstrings of women who are lonely, widowed, or too trusting.
Beneath her dazzling exterior, there is a tender underbelly just as exposed as the rest of us. An underbelly that Bram made his target.
Since the pandemic began, there has been a perfect storm of isolation and internet dating resulting in an explosion of romance scams. Per the FTC, “in 2020, reported losses to romance scams reached a record $ 304 million, up about 50 percent from 2019.” When broken down, that means one person loses nearly $ 3,000 on average to a romance scam. For victims over 70, like my grandma, that individual average jumps up to nearly $ 10,000. According to a recent study by Social Catfish, Florida — where my grandma happens to live — is one of the top five targeted states for romance scams, with over 1,600 victims and $ 40.1 million lost.
Okay, now back to my grandma and Bram. Their “love story” all started with an innocuous Facebook friend request. Bram approached my grandma with two things going for him: a love of music and a good-looking profile photo. At first glance, Bram appeared to be a well-dressed, 50-something single man living in Florida. Donning a striped shirt and form-fitting black blazer, Bram’s close-up photo showed a white, gray-haired gentleman with an air of distinction. By the time my grandma had shared the news of her new boyfriend, the two had already been speaking for days (and hours) on end.
Throughout their conversations, my grandma had begun to divulge personal details to Bram about our family. Like any proud grandparent, she shared family photos and links to my work. One day, when she asked me to send her my travel videos so that she could send them to Bram, I began to feel uncomfortable. Who exactly was this man that she had been confiding in? While I knew nothing about him, he now knew my name, my career, the city I live in, and what I look like. The whole thing made me uneasy.
Those calls, by the way, were happening on Google Hangouts. When my grandma and Bram first began chatting, he quickly asked her to move their conversation from Facebook Messenger to Google Hangouts. For my grandma, who struggles with sending images via text message, setting up a Google Hangout account would prove no easy feat. And yet, Bram seemed insistent on the switch, even taking the time to walk her through it. As it turns out, moving a conversation to Google Hangouts is one of the first steps that romance scammers take. According to RomanceScams.org, this change both gives scammers access to your email address, while moving the conversation to a less popular and, therefore, less regulated platform.
Let me pause here to say I don’t typically run background checks on my grandma’s dating life, but when she shared details of Bram’s plans to come to meet her in Miami this November, I began to seriously wonder about this mysterious stranger on the other end of her calls.
Clearly, the person posing as Bram had assumed my grandma wouldn’t be well-versed in Serbian politics.
Throughout their conversations, my grandma’s boyfriend had gone by the name of Bram, although his Facebook profile was inexplicably under the name “James Gary.” When a Google search didn’t turn up any results for either James Gary or Bram, I decided to take a closer look at the pictures he had sent my grandma. The first photo was that Biden image, where they posed in front of, what appeared to be, the White House columns. The second (suspiciously paparazzi-style) picture showed a leather jacket-wearing Bram walking alongside a middle-aged woman in a fur shawl. According to my grandma, the woman was Bram’s now-deceased wife, who had passed away in a car crash.
Flattery, emotion, and sob stories are just a few of the go-to tactics in the romance scammer’s playbook. These people will disarm their victim by sharing fake personal stories of love and loss in an effort to build trust. They’ll cunningly withdraw personal information through conversation and use empty promises of future visits to extract money.
I decided to try a reverse Google image search, and, in less than five minutes, I was able to find out the real name of the man in both photos: Dragan Šutanovac.
Turns out, Šutanovac is a Serbian politician who served as the country’s Minister of Defense for five years, which explained the photo of him chummily shaking hands with Biden. Living in Belgrade with his family, the second photo of Bram and his (very much alive) wife had been pulled from a local Serbian tabloid. Clearly, the person posing as Bram had assumed my grandma wouldn’t be well-versed in Serbian politics.
During my search into Bram, I had been sending my mom minute-by-minute updates with each new shocking discovery. With enough evidence to prove Bram was a fraud, my family circled the bandwagons and called my grandma. Throughout my childhood and adult life, my grandma has lived by the motto of “it is what it is.” No matter what life tosses her way, her objective response has always been to shrug off adversity and move on — and the news of Bram being a scammer was no different. If she felt embarrassed, my grandma hid it well. If she felt hurt, she covered the disappointment with a defiant smile. In the end, she felt worse for the Serbian politician whose image was being used to scam women out of money.
“Honey, I’ve got other boyfriends.”
The more I looked into Šutanovac, the more I found fake profiles using his likeness. While the details of each account varied in location and interest, they all had one thing in common: Dragan Šutanovac had become their go-to image of choice.
With my grandma having blocked Bram on all social media, I reached out to Šutanovac on Twitter, curious to know if he was aware of how his image was being used. Surprisingly, I heard back from him almost immediately.
“In November 2017, the Serbian media published that a scammer using my photos was arrested,” Šutanovac told me via email. “Only then did I fully realize what was happening, but I had suspicions as far back as 2014, due to strange friend requests.”
For Šutanovac, romance scammers have thrown him into a veritable social media prison, one in which his real accounts are flagged and suspended in light of the hundreds of fake ones using his photos. For my grandma, a few days of sleuthing by her suspicious granddaughter saved her from potential heartbreak and financial loss. Other romance scam victims are not so lucky.
In the end, it was easy enough for my grandma to ignore Bram and laugh off the entire situation. With the same great panache she uses in life, my grandma flipped her hair and simply said, “Honey, I’ve got other boyfriends.”
Nikki Vargas Originally from Colombia, Nikki is a freelance journalist and travel editor based in New York City.
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