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In one woman's mysterious drowning, signs of a national romance scam epidemic

Widow's tragic story highlights scam epidemic
Widow's tragic story sheds light on romance scam epidemic 11:43

The scammer who drained Laura Kowal of her $1.5 million nest egg and sent the widowed healthcare executive on a path that ended with her death in the Mississippi River, hundreds of miles from her western Illinois home, called himself "Frank Borg."

Frank drew Laura into a relationship after she connected to his profile on the popular dating website Over months of giddy cellphone calls and in hundreds of florid emails, Frank manipulated her by drawing on publicly-posted details of her life to forge a bond, then induced her to invest with his online trading firm. As her skepticism grew and love waned, he strong-armed her into helping him dip his hands into the accounts of other victims.

"She had all these buckets full in her life, my mom did," said Kelly Gowe, Laura's daughter. "But there was this one bucket that was missing… and that was companionship. ... And that's ultimately where we're at now, is because of that."

Laura Kowal, right, with her daughter, Kelly Gowe. Family photo

This increasingly common pattern — a modern spin that combines emotionally exploitative catfishing schemes with fast-moving investment and crypto scams — has served as the leading edge of an epidemic of pernicious scams targeting users of dating apps and websites. U.S. Justice Department and FBI officials told CBS News there is a public account of the toll: more than 64,000 American victims in 2023. But multiple experts told CBS News that those numbers significantly under-represent the true scope.

"They may be embarrassed that they have been victimized in this way," said Arun Rao, who oversees the Consumer Protection Branch at the U.S. Department of Justice. "They may be ashamed. They may be afraid to tell their friends or family." 

With so many cases going unreported, he said, it is a national crisis unfolding largely in secret.

The human cost is likely more severe than law enforcement can quantify. Senior FBI officials told CBS News a striking number of cases are ending with victims dying by suicide.

"They shouldn't feel embarrassed or ashamed," Rao said. "These are sophisticated fraudsters who are preying on the human desire for affection. For connection with another person. And they are manipulating [victims] … using sophisticated technology."

Dating sites a "hunting ground" for scammers

A year-long CBS News investigation has found a growing number of federal agents, local police and online security experts believe the law enforcement response has, to date, failed to address the problem. The financial toll of known losses has swelled, from $500 million in 2019 to $1.14 billion last year. 

Our investigation has found:

  • Local police officials from across the country are deeply frustrated by the lack of options to address the steady flow of complaints they receive, often from the adult children of divorced or widowed victims who have struggled to navigate the unfamiliar world of dating apps. 
  • Federal agents struggle to keep pace with scammers who are often operating in plain sight in West Africa and South Asia. 
  • Scammers have had increasing success in leveraging the promise of love to strong-arm victims into becoming unwitting co-conspirators, creating a legal mess for investigators who must decide how to treat victims who have openly committed fraud at the behest of the scammers, helping perpetrators launder funds swindled from others.
  • Law enforcement and security experts from dating and social media sites told CBS News those apps have been a "hunting ground" for scammers, and the industry has struggled to effectively curtail the problem. Several former insiders at the publicly-traded company with the largest market share, Match Group, criticized its record for protecting customers. Match Group CEO Bernard Kim defended the company's performance, telling CBS News: "We invest a tremendous amount of capital, incredible talent on trust and safety. It is the first and foremost top priority for us as an organization."

Victim's daughter says her mother "was endangered"

The tragedy of Laura Kowal touches on every one of those alleged weaknesses, unfolding in ways that now sound painfully familiar to the experts who are immersed in finding a solution to the online scam epidemic.

Hundreds of emails between Laura and "Frank" detail a long con, in which Laura is drawn in with promises of love and manipulated into sending more and more money.

Mark Solomon, president of the International Association of Financial Crime Investigators, said Frank followed a familiar playbook used by scammers to manipulate their victims. 

"We don't blame a person that's on the side of the street and gets robbed with a gun pointed at them," said Solomon, who was the first to tell Kowal's story on the association's podcast, The Protectors, produced by Modified Media. "We can't do that to the victims of these frauds and scams either. These are professionals, they do it every single day. They're good at it."

The only anomaly in Laura's case, Solomon said, are the lingering questions surrounding her death. 

A bag containing evidence related to Laura Kowal, collected by police in Galena, Illinois. CBS News

While several local detectives who investigated the final days and hours of her life appear persuaded that she died by suicide, they have stopped short of that formal finding. Her autopsy report, prepared in the days after her body was discovered in August 2020 floating in the river by a couple out fishing, says only that she died by "drowning."

Those who knew Laura best, however, believe the actions of her final hours are so incongruous with how she lived that she may have met her end at the hands of someone involved in the fraud.

Her daughter, Kelly Gowe, said she believes scammers, including the person using the pseudonym "Frank Borg," drove her mother to a point of feeling "like she was endangered. That she was going to die."  

"It's the scammers," she said. "It's the criminals behind those emails. It's Frank Borg… this character. He killed my mom. And everyone that is involved in this scam in any capacity, that's moving the money, that's placing a phone call, that's hitting 'enter' and 'send' on an email — they're all responsible for my mom's death."

An eerie letter that Laura left behind, buried in a file drawer and found while Laura was missing, leaves more questions than answers.

"You were right in your judgment of me," Laura wrote to her daughter. "I've been living a double life this past year. It has left me broke and broken. Yes, it involves Frank, the man I met through online dating. I tried to stop this, many times, but I knew I would end up dead."

The reach of scammers has widened, officials say

Over the course of this week, CBS News will tell Laura Kowal's story. And, through her story, the reports will re-examine a problem many in law enforcement now believe has been grossly underestimated. 

The head of the FBI's financial crimes sections, James Barnacle, said the reach of the scams has widened as overseas criminals have gained direct access to their targets: lonely Americans seeking a connection through social media and dating apps. 

Match Group, the largest company in the online dating space, has tried to keep pace, telling CBS News it is now swatting down 44 spam profiles per minute. "We're working really, really hard every single day to make sure that people are authentic," Match Group CEO Bernard Kim told CBS News. "That's the key to our platform."

An effort to rally a stronger federal approach has a growing number of advocates — among them, Laura's daughter, Kelly Gowe.

Last year, Gowe left her job with a farm supply company and has dedicated herself to sharing her mother's story as a cautionary tale. At a speech to a women's group in Iowa earlier this year, she urged financial institutions and law enforcement to do more to protect victims.

"It wasn't until I learned that I was going to have a daughter of my own that I knew that, one day, she would know the full story of how her grandmother passed away," Gowe said. "I want her to know that her grandmother's story has the ability to educate people and to promote change, and ultimately her grandmother's story can save someone's life. And that's now the responsibility that I carry, to do that."

More from the CBS News Investigation:

CBS News investigative reporters Pat Milton, Clare Hymes and Alyssa Spady contributed to this report.

If you or someone you know has been affected by a romance scam, please share your story with us at

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