- A woman decided to try out online dating and found someone who seemed promising.
- After a few dates, the man asked to borrow her car and credit card and she agreed without question.
- He then disappeared and the woman called the police, who eventually discovered he was a criminal who had been previously incarcerated and had scammed multiple women through online dating platforms.
Excerpted from Scam Me If You Can: Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today’s Rip-off Artistsby Frank Abagnale with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Frank Abagnale, 2019.
Melissa Trent, a forty-something single mother in Colorado Springs, Colorado, logged into her account on the dating website Plenty of Fish and was excited to see a new message from a user called “lovetohike1972.” Wow. Melissa was outdoorsy, and she had such bad luck finding anyone nice who shared her love of hiking and the Colorado wilderness. The message lovetohike1972 sent was pretty flattering, too: “I can’t believe a woman as pretty as you is on a site like this.”
Melissa was eager to check out his account, and she was not disappointed by what she saw. Lots of photos showed a really nice-looking, fit, smiling guy in hiking clothes, engaged in various outdoor activities. His interests included hiking, biking, skiing, and craft beer—all the things Melissa liked, too. She thought this guy sounded perfect—and such a change from most of the men who contacted her on the site, who she thought looked unappealing or seemed interested only in sex.
She decided to respond, and after exchanging a few messages, she gave the man her mobile number. He reached out later that evening. His name was Jeff Cantwell, and he was soft-spoken but energetic-sounding. He sounded nice. Jeff was new in town, having just relocated to Colorado Springs from Kodiak Island, Alaska, where he was born, to study to become an arborist.
The two met in person and his personality matched perfectly with his online profile.
A couple of days later, Melissa agreed to meet Jeff for a date in a public place. The attraction she had felt on the phone was confirmed when she saw and talked to him in person. He was good-looking. He looked just like his photographs—that gave her a feeling of security. They talked about hiking, and he regaled her with stories about some of his adventures on the trail. He seemed like the real deal. And there was no argument over the bill—Jeff paid. A few days later, he asked what her two daughters liked to eat, and then came over to make spaghetti and meatballs for all of them. It was a fun, easygoing dinner.
For several days after that, the two were in constant contact, by phone and text. Each time, Jeff told Melissa more and more about his background: He had lost his parents in a car accident, an accident that had also claimed the life of his fiancée and their baby. He had been in Afghanistan, where he was injured. He had completed many difficult and challenging hikes.
He said he was having trouble with his bank card and asked her to withdraw money.
Then, one weekend shortly after their conversations had started getting deeper, Jeff told Melissa that his bank card had stopped working. At issue were his VA benefits—whenever a military check was deposited into his account, his account would be frozen while the check cleared. It seemed plausible enough to Melissa, who really didn’t know much about how the VA worked. And Jeff had asked her for only $100 to see him through the weekend, which he would pay back promptly on Monday. Then they decided to go to a casino, and that was when Jeff asked Melissa if she could instead withdraw $200 from her account—$100 to get him through the weekend and $100 more for them to gamble with. She consented, and they actually managed to stretch the gambling money for ten hours before it was gone.
During their time at the casino, she overheard Jeff talking to another customer about living in Alaska, and she heard him tell the man, “My mom is Inuit,” in the present tense. But he’d told her that his parents were deceased. It was the only red flag she had noticed up to that point. Still, she told herself that just because she would talk about a deceased person in the past tense didn’t mean that everyone would. She dismissed it.
She lent him her car so he could drive to his bank to sort out the issues with his account.
The following Monday, Jeff said he needed to drive to his bank’s branch in Denver, more than an hour away, since he was still having trouble with the money in his account. She agreed to let him take her Audi. He also asked her if he could use the credit card that she left in her car to fill up the tank. Melissa didn’t recall leaving a credit card in her car, but she put it out of her head and said okay.
After some time went by and Melissa had not heard back from Jeff, she became increasingly worried. Where was he? She texted him, and he replied that by the time he had gotten to Denver, the bank was closed, and he’d have to stay overnight—in her car, in the bank parking lot. Melissa wanted him to send a picture of him in the bank’s parking lot to prove he was really there, but he became angry at her questioning. He texted through the night, and the messages seemed to become increasingly fraught with emotion.
She decided to call the police, but he assured the officer not to worry.
As a result, she called the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, who called Jeff and spoke to him about the car. He assured the officer that he would return the car. The police called Melissa back and told her not to worry—Jeff hadn’t stolen her car.
But the next day there was still no car and no Jeff. At that point, Melissa learned that the police had been able to use Cantwell’s cell phone number to identify him as Jeffrey Dean Caldwell, a forty-four-year-old criminal from Virginia who had already been incarcerated in several states for seven felonies, including burglary and writing bad checks. He had been paroled in September 2016 after serving some time for identity theft in Colorado. But in April 2017, after he connected with Melissa, he had stopped checking in with his parole officer.
Her car was found in bad shape after being used as his home for some time.
Eventually, Caldwell was arrested in South Dakota. Melissa did get her Audi back, but it was in very bad condition. Apparently, Caldwell had gone on a craft beer tour and decorated the car with stickers from every brewery he had visited. It was also a mess inside, as he’d apparently used the car as his home.
“These con men are transient and move around a lot without any way to track where they are,” said Lieutenant James Disner, of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, which had also arrested Caldwell almost a decade earlier. “I have been successful in a few of these types of cases, but only by reaching out to the communities they prey on.”
The man targeted other women and used common interests to establish trust.
Community is the key here—Caldwell sought out women in the hiking community, and Melissa was not his first victim. This is a type of affinity fraud, the same kind that financial scammers often use to lure victims into investment schemes (page 115). Dating scammers use common interests and membership in groups to connect with people and establish a basic level of trust.
Caldwell often trolled Internet dating sites for “like-minded” people or found victims through in-person Meetup groups for hikers, and he would spend time at trailheads, hostels, outdoor equipment stores, and other places where hikers congregate and hang out, according to Brendan Borrell, a journalist who wrote about Caldwell and communicated with him while he was on the run from the law. So be mindful: Just because someone seems to share your interests or belongs to the same groups as you does not guarantee that the person is trustworthy.