Michael Rhomberg and his wife, Ilysse, were ready to expand their family. Excited to adopt, the Rhomberg’s found self-proclaimed adoption specialist Kevin Cohen. But, it was all a scam.
“Kevin Cohen is a thief. A thief of dreams and of money and of, and of hearts, and that’s all he’ll ever be to me now,” said Michael Rhomberg.
Cohen was sentenced in 2010 to 10 to 20 years in prison after being convicted of grand larceny and other charges in a scheme that prosecutors in Nassau County, N.Y., said netted more than $300,000 from people trying to adopt children.
He had told the Rhombergs he knew of a college student who wanted to give up her baby and that he needed $7,500 right away. The Rhomberg’s paid Cohen and in return he provided them with detailed medical records and a sonogram.
However, both were fake. The Rhombergs' baby never existed.
“It really is incredible that anyone would do this and, you know, had he stabbed me in the
heart, it would have been less cruel,” Ilysse Rhomberg said.
This is a scam Kevin Cohen would run over and over again, preying on those desperate to start a family.
There are more than 1.5 million adopted children in the United States according to recent census data. Adoption is both an emotional and financial transaction, and as with any financial transaction one has to be careful.
Adam Pertman, the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of "Adoption Nation," says the high cost of adopting is what attracts scammers.
“It’s anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 for an infant adoption in America today.” Pertman said. “And sometimes it can be higher, so you can see why people are lured into it to make bucks instead of to do a service for real human beings.”
While asking for money up front may not be a red flag, do not hesitate to ask for a breakdown of expenses. If that professional has been through the process before, he or she should know the costs, according to Pertman.
“If they have said it’s pretty much going to be $25,000, say $30,000, and suddenly you’re creeping up to $30,000 or $35,000, I think you have reason to start wondering what’s going on here?” Pertman said.
Lynne Banks, the South Dakota representative for the American Adoption Congress, which advocates for pre-adoptive parents, says that 70 percent of the adoption scams she sees are financial, while the others are emotional.
According to Banks, an emotional scammer is someone who will contact potential adoptive parents stating they are pregnant and want to place a baby with them. In reality, this person is not pregnant and is simply out to get attention.
“We had one down in Iowa, and she would pretend to be other people,” Banks said. “She was never pregnant, but she would contact people and would even meet up with them.”
To avoid both emotional and financial scams when adopting, Banks says it is important to find a third party who can verify the person or agency one is working with.
“I always encourage potential adoptive parents, don’t send money, don’t fly anywhere, don’t get emotionally involved if you can help it, until you have proof of pregnancy,” Banks said. “Verify that proof of pregnancy, with a medical release or have an adoption professional or social worker verify that person.”
In addition to outside verification, do online research, check with the better business bureau and contact parent support groups where you can connect with someone who has already experienced the adoption process.
“You can go online to parent support groups. Put out word, what do you think of this agency? What do you think of this lawyer?” Pertman said. “Ask for references. I’ll go back to that again and again because if somebody has a little scam going, they’re not going to be very reference friendly.”
As for the Rhomberg family, Cohen left them with financial and emotional scars through his false promises of a newborn baby.
“He didn’t care who he hurt, he didn’t care who he ran over, or what dreams he shattered, or hearts he broke,” Michael Rhomberg said. “He just wanted money and that’s disgusting.”
For the thousands of families looking to adopt, Kevin Cohen’s scheme is a cautionary tale. To hear the full story of Cohen's scam, watch "American Greed" Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST/PST on CNBC.