Help! I maxed out 5 cards to 'help' online boyfriend

Retired woman falls for scam, racks up $35,000 she can't pay back

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

Ask a question.

Question Dear Sally,
I have had excellent credit for years, but I got involved with a guy online and sent him a lot of money. I maxed out five credit cards to the tune of over $35,000, and I wiped out my savings and checking accounts.

I'm retired with a monthly income of about $2,400, which was more than enough until I put myself in debt. Now, I can't even pay the minimum amounts on my cards. What now?  – Joni


Dear Joni,
That’s so sad. You didn’t say if you ever met him or if he disappeared when he knew you were out of money. I’m assuming he’s gone, however, or he’d at least be promising to start paying you back.

From the outside looking in, it’s easy for others to say they would never fall for such a thing. But loneliness can make a person vulnerable, and some people know just what to say to make other people trust them. I knew someone who fell for the same thing – twice. She even remortgaged her paid-off house to rescue her “boyfriends.” Of course, they both disappeared when they got what they wanted.

Boyfriend scammers have a few basic storylines they use to get money from unsuspecting online romantic interests. (Of course, girlfriend scammers abound, too.) Boyfriends often claim they’ve been robbed and need money. They, or their darling children, are sick and will die if you don’t send cash. They need airfare. I knew a woman who had a boyfriend in the army who couldn’t bring his belongings home from overseas unless his never-seen-in-person girlfriend sent him $1,500. (Hint: The army doesn’t make service members pay for transporting their own gear home.)

I hate to tell you this, but your online boyfriend didn’t just steal your money and your trust. He stole your retirement. You had money saved up, and you had little or no debt. Now you have no money, and not enough money to pay your debt.

You have two choices. You can file for bankruptcy and get rid of the debt. Or you can go back to work.

It’s a shame to be forced into bankruptcy by something like this. It’s hard to recover from bankruptcy after retirement. The best you can hope for is to get rid of the debts so you can afford to live on your $2,400 per month. Bankruptcy isn’t free, nor is it as cheap as some ads may lead you to believe. You’ll have to come up with money for legal help, plus trustee and filing fees.

If your health permits, you’re better off looking for work to pay off your debts and improve your income. If you find the right part-time job or other opportunity, you may even enjoy getting out and being with other people. If you make good friends at work, you are less likely to look for friendship online. Everybody has quirks, but I’d take my chances with real live people over the ones on the internet any day.

After you start to make a little money, you may want to consider negotiating your debts with your card issuers. Thirty-five thousand dollars a lot to pay off, especially if the debt is on high-interest cards. You can negotiate the debts yourself – you don’t need to pay someone to do it for you.

Now you know, a boyfriend who asks for money is not a boyfriend at all. It’s getting to the point where if you have an online romance and don’t meet the guy in person, you can almost bet on eventually being asked for money. It makes you wonder how many other people this scammer has on the line, talking every day, gaining their confidences, and then seeing how much money he can wrench out of each relationship before he moves on to fatter wallets. Next time, at least, it won’t be you.

See related: Top 10 phone scams to watch out for,

Meet's reader Q&A experts

Does a personal finance problem have you worried? Monday through Saturday,'s Q&A experts answer questions from readers. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.

Join the discussion
We encourage an active and insightful conversation among our users. Please help us keep our community civil and respectful. For your safety, do not disclose confidential or personal information such as bank account numbers or social security numbers. Anything you post may be disclosed, published, transmitted or reused.

If you are commenting using a Facebook account, your profile information may be displayed with your comment depending on your privacy settings. By leaving the 'Post to Facebook' box selected, your comment will be published to your Facebook profile in addition to the space below.

The editorial content on is not sponsored by any bank or credit card issuer. The journalists in the editorial department are separate from the company's business operations. The comments posted below are not provided, reviewed or approved by any company mentioned in our editorial content. Additionally, any companies mentioned in the content do not assume responsibility to ensure that all posts and/or questions are answered.

Weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, advice, articles and tips delivered to your inbox. It's FREE.

Updated: 01-23-2019