Everyone loves a story about a con artist — or at least they love it until it happens to them. There’s something about a person’s ability to deceive others and carry on the charade for long periods of time that is undeniably fascinating. But for those victimized by con artists, the feelings of betrayal and mistrust are far from amusing.

An article in this month’s Atlantic magazine recounts the exploits of a con man named Derek Alldred, who appears to have cheated at least a dozen women out of an estimated $1 million. The article describes how Alldred, using the alias Rich Peterson, met women through dating sites and soon established serious relationships with them.

The women were typically in their 40s or 50s, recently divorced or recovering from a serious accident, and had children. In other words, they were emotionally vulnerable and looking for someone to help make their lives a little better. Enter Alldred, who, in true con artist fashion, presented himself as a man of means and status — as a surgeon, an investment banker or a decorated military veteran awarded the Purple Heart. He would even dress in hospital scrubs or military fatigues to add to his “credibility.” Then one day he would disappear, having drained thousands of dollars from his targets’ financial accounts and racking up thousands more on their credit cards.

Common Tale, With a Twist

It’s a story you’ve probably heard before, as in last year’s “Dirty John” podcast by the Los Angeles Times, which my colleague Rebecca LaFlure discussed in a blog post. Alldred’s victims were left swindled and feeling horrible about themselves for falling for his scheme.

However, in this story things took an interesting twist. Through internet research and social media, several of Alldred’s victims found one another, and began comparing notes and locating additional women. While local police departments were left with few leads as Peterson moved around the country, these women tracked his exploits through news stories and shared information among themselves.

The article describes how Alldred’s victims were often told by local police there was not enough evidence to charge him with a crime – in at least one instance, because his and the victim’s finances were so intertwined it would have been difficult to establish which credit card charges were unauthorized. Another recounted how a police detective accused her of being a bitter ex-girlfriend and advised her to drop the case.

Their breakthrough came last year when one of Alldred’s victims told her story to a female police officer, who took her case seriously. The victim showed detectives a photo of Alldred in his Navy uniform. The detectives contacted the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and found that he was in violation of the Stolen Valor Act, a 2013 law making it a federal crime to profit off military honors that have not been earned.

With the help of the women he perceived to be so vulnerable, the NCIS captured Alldred. He was charged with two counts of identity theft and one count of mail fraud, according to the article, the charges carrying a maximum penalty of 24 years in prison.

If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check It Out

No one can blame these women for falling for Alldred’s convincing con act. In reading the Atlantic story, I couldn’t help but think of an expression used at the old Chicago City News Bureau: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. The idea was to remind journalists not to take information at face value, even if it comes from a trusted source.

As the article makes clear, many of the women noted Allred’s odd behavior, such as his frequent trips to the hospital or how there always seemed to be a new emergency popping up in his life, such as him being in an accident or his mother dying.

As investigators, it’s our job to pay attention to red flags like these. Because we don’t know and have no relationship with the subjects of our investigations, we are not compromised by any personal attachments, as our clients sometimes are. Some of Alldred’s victims said that, in retrospect, they couldn’t believe they overlooked his odd behavior or the drama that seemed ever-present in his life – they felt they should have known better. In situations like these, even when love is involved, it’s always important to trust your gut.

Another important lesson from this story is not to comingle finances or share credit card information with someone you met only recently. By carefully cultivating his victims’ trust and getting them to share financial information and access with him, Alldred was not only able to take advantage, but he left a minimal paper trail providing little clear evidence that a crime had been committed, making it a challenge for local authorities to pursue charges.

Empowered by the Internet

Last but not least, the value of social media in this story cannot be overstated. Alldred’s victims used their own investigative skills to find others like them and share research. In our own investigations, internet research — including but not limited to social media research — can be invaluable for not only establishing a subject’s personal history, but, in some cases, for locating the person and determining if he or she uses an alias. For example, a subject with an arrest record he or she prefers to keep hidden may use a variation of his or her name, or legally change it altogether, to try to thwart a background check.

There’s no guarantee that such an approach would have spared these women their heartache, frustration and financial losses. But whether in love or in business, following one’s instincts — and the public record — are among the best defenses against con artists.

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