Spoiler alert: If Keanu Reeves reaches out to you on social media and declares his romantic intentions, it's probably not really him.
Nevertheless, women around the world have reported being conned out of cash and personal information by scammers purporting to be the John Wick actor.
A Google search for "Keanu Reeves scam" shows that women in Canada, Taiwan and across America have reported being duped into thinking Reeves has the hots for them — and that the multimillionaire movie star could use some money.
This is just one of numerous rackets that have grown more prevalent during the pandemic. According to the Federal Trade Commission, US consumers have reported losing more than US$545mil (RM2.2bil) to fraud since January 2020.
So-called imposter scams were the most frequently reported ruses last year, the FTC says. The number of imposter scam reports hit nearly 557,000 in the first half of this year, up 18% from the same period a year ago.
The Keanu Reeves scam is particularly intriguing because to many, if not most, people, it would seem to be obviously bogus.
But try telling that to Molli Hermiston's aunt.
Hermiston, 35, told me her aunt had been led on for almost a year by someone claiming to be Reeves, "and she has been so brainwashed, she won't listen to our family."
Let me pause to say I'm going on the assumption that the real Reeves has nothing to do with any of this.
I reached out to his publicist, requesting that she ask Reeves whether he spends his free time wooing women he's never met on Instagram and Facebook.
The publicist didn't respond. Even so, I'm prepared to give Reeves the benefit of the doubt.
"My aunt is not stupid," Hermiston said. "This is purely emotional."
The Culver City resident said her aunt, who is in her 70s, was so far down the Keanu Reeves rabbit hole that she was now trying to sell her house in Little Rock, Ark.
"She wants to move to Los Angeles," Hermiston said. "She wants to be nearer to Keanu."
I asked if I could speak with her aunt. Hermiston said it would be fruitless to try.
"She doesn't want to talk about it," Hermiston said. "She's told the family to respect her privacy."
As best as Hermiston can tell, someone approached her aunt on social media last year and convinced her to chat via Google Hangouts.
Once there, the scammer began an online courtship that eventually identified him as Reeves (or a facsimile thereof). The digital relationship blossomed over a number of months.
"He even sent my aunt a necklace and earrings," Hermiston said. "She wears them every day."
What did Fake Keanu want in return?
"We know he asked for US$10,000 (RM41,555) at one point," Hermiston replied. "We don't know if my aunt gave him anything."
She thought about it a moment.
"If he's been talking to her for a year, she must have given him something."
Curious about how this works, Hermiston said she set up an Instagram account in the guise of an elderly, well-to-do woman and followed a bunch of Keanu Reeves fan pages.
"Very quickly," she told me, "five different people saying they're Keanu Reeves approached me online."
Hermiston let me see her Google Hangout exchanges with one of them.
"Due to my profession and career," Fake Keanu said, "I want this to be a secret between you and I."
"What do you like to be called?" Hermiston asked.
"Keanu will be fine."
What followed were a series of probing questions on Fake Keanu's part — the sort of questions that reveal a person's wealth and status, or that might come up as part of a bank's security queries to confirm a customer's identity.
Hermiston put a lot of time into this. Her exchanges with Fake Keanu go on and on over several days, clearly demonstrating a commitment on the scammer's part to pursue his mark over the long haul.
Eventually, Fake Keanu suggests he and Hermiston meet at a celebrity event.
He says it will only cost her US$2,000 (RM8,311) to attend. He wants the payment in bitcoin.
By now, you're undoubtedly asking: How could anyone fall for this?
"I've thought a lot about that," Hermiston said. "We're talking about older women, maybe lonely women who don't get out much, especially now. Women who may not know a lot about social media."
I've written previously about how some con artists use the same techniques as professional hypnotists — repeating things again and again, building trust, solidifying that trust with increasingly challenging requests.
"Hypnosis is a natural, organic process," Kevin Stone, a certified hypnotherapist who bills himself as the "Hollywood Hypnotist," told me. "The power of suggestion can be used to manipulate or sway people."
Or maybe the success of imposter scams simply depends on a desire on the victim's part for it to be true. Who wouldn't want to win a lottery, inherit a ton of money ... or interact with a movie star?
Especially if that movie star is one of the biggest in the world — and he's in the mood for love.
"Millions of people turn to online dating apps or social networking sites to meet someone," the FTC says. "But instead of finding romance, many find a scammer trying to trick them into sending money."
Losses from romance scams hit a record US$304mil (RM1.2bil) last year, up about 50% from the year before, the agency says.
Never let someone talk you into doing something that seems questionable, the FTC advises. Never send money to such people.
Hermiston said she'd been delegated by her family to intervene with her aunt and try to talk some sense into her. So far, she said, it's been difficult.
"She just doesn't want to talk about it."
I suggested that she show her aunt this column. Perhaps seeing it all laid out like this will open her eyes to what's really happening.
And Keanu — real Keanu — if you're reading this, maybe one of your people could get in touch with me, and I could pass along how to contact Hermiston's aunt. A brief note might help to explain that she's been misled.
Otherwise, you could soon have a septuagenarian Arkansas woman wearing a matching necklace and earrings knocking at your door. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service