Credit: Jon Elswick | AP

Belfast police are warning people to be wary on social media after a scam artist pretending to be a local woman’s Facebook friend relieved her of more than $26,000.

The woman, who is in her 70s, first was contacted by the scammer July 19, according to Detective Sgt. Matthew Cook. The person, whose identity is unknown, had made a fake Facebook account with the identity of an old friend of the woman’s.

Over Facebook messenger, the scammer told the woman about a grant program and told her that she could receive $100,000 through it. The woman was interested, and they kept communicating. Initially, the scammer told her that the money did not have any strings attached, but throughout their conversations changed the story and told her that she needed to send cash to pay the supposed taxes on the $100,000, and also some money to “free it up,” Cook said.

Over the course of 11 days, the woman purchased many prepaid gift cards at the scammer’s direction, took pictures of them and sent the photos over Facebook messenger. As soon as the scammer had access to the number code on the gift card, they redeemed them. Although she retained a physical stack of gift cards “a foot high,” Cook said, they are now without value.

“Gift cards are untraceable,” he said. “That’s why a lot of people into drugs or illegal activities use them.”

The woman also sent the scammer photos of the front and back of her credit card, and went to the bank and sent money to them via wire transfers.

“They told her to tell the bank she was sending money to a family member,” Cook said. “Once a wire transfer is sent, it’s gone.”

The woman eventually became suspicious of what was happening and went to her bank, where officials urged her to contact the police. Cook said that because she used her credit card to purchase some of the gift cards, she may be able to recoup a portion of her lost money that way. He also said that it is highly unlikely that officers will be able to make an arrest in the case, adding that he believes the scammer may live in another country, based on that person’s grammar and word choices.

“These are very difficult cases,” Cook said. “I feel really bad for this lady. She’s on a fixed income. And she’s an educated person. It can happen to anybody. You have to have a healthy suspicion of everything nowadays.”

He said he hopes everyone will be cautious of get-rich-quick schemes, even ones that purport to come from a friend.

“I told the woman, have you ever heard the term, ‘if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,’” Cook said.