Criminals and fraudsters networks defraud lonely people around the world with false promises of love and romance. Modern online romance scams are premeditated, organized crimes that steal millions ― potentially billions ― of dollars from vulnerable, lonely people over the internet.
The scammers may just have lit upon the perfect crime: They sit at computers safely overseas, hunting for their prey on social networks, and they rarely get caught. The victims are often left deeply damaged ― both financially and psychologically ― and so embarrassed that they’re reluctant to come forward even when they realize they’ve been scammed.
Those in a position to help quash this fraud, meanwhile, treat it like “a small brush fire, when actually it is a raging forest fire,” said Dr. Steve G. Jones. Jones is a victim too: His name and photos were stolen to create the fake identities used in romance scams.
In the U.S., romance scams account for the highest financial losses of all internet-facilitated crimes, the FBI reports. The bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center said it received 15,000 romance scam complaints last year ― a 20 percent increase over the previous year. Reported losses exceeded $230 million, but the FBI puts the true number much higher, estimating that only about 15 percent of these crimes are even being reported.
The odds of recovering that money, the Bureau notes, are very low. Some of the money scammed by international criminal networks even winds up in the hands of terrorist operations like Boko Haram, according to Interpol.
HuffPost interviewed multiple women from six continents who had sent money to scammers they fell in love with online ― and who responded to HuffPost’s invitation on anti-scammer and other Facebook pages to talk about it.
Diana Warnack, 48, of Germany gave $18,000 to a man she met online. Intellectually, she knows she was taken, but emotionally, it’s a different story. “I am still in love with him. This is crazy, I know! He is still in my heart,” she told HuffPost. “I guess somehow everyone is looking for great love.”
We also talked with members of a cottage industry that has sprung up to support the defrauded: operators of scam-watch websites, counselors for fraud victims and people who self-identify as scam-baiters trying to trap the criminals so the latter can be arrested. And we spoke to FBI investigators, academics and researchers who study cyberfraud.
FBI Special Agent Christine Beining tells the story of a Texas woman defrauded by a scammer who called himself “Charlie.” The woman, a devout Christian, has since contemplated suicide, Beining said. Like Warnack, she still struggles emotionally to accept what happened.
“Even though she knows Charlie doesn’t [really] exist, there are times when she thinks the two men we arrested acted alone,” Beining said.
The two men in Nigeria pleaded guilty to their roles in scamming the Texas woman in July 2016 and were sentenced to three years in prison. But she didn’t get her money back.
She had openly discussed her faith on her Facebook profile ― something that gave Charlie a hook when he sought her friendship online in 2014. Their relationship progressed quickly and soon they were praying together ― online, of course.
The woman, who’s in her late 50s, said in an audiotape provided by the FBI (listen below) that she was in an “emotionally abusive marriage, and things had not been good for probably at least 10 years.” She was looking for happiness and thought she had found it with Charlie.
When he first asked for money to help finish a construction job, she said, “I prayed about it. I’ve always been a very giving person, and I figured if I had money … I could send him some.” That’s how she came to lose the first $30,000.
Over the next two years, she sent more money in response to each new story he told her, she said, because, after all, they were in love. Eventually, the woman’s financial adviser became alarmed about her steadily dwindling accounts and, suspecting fraud, urged her to contact the FBI. By that point, she had sent $2 million to a man she never met.
The Most Likely Victims
According to FBI data, 82 percent of romance scam victims are women and women over 50 are defrauded out of the most money.
Using fake profiles on online dating sites and social networks, including Facebook, scammers troll for the lonely and the vulnerable. They promise love and marriage and build what feels like a very real relationship to the victim.
Someone who has fallen for a scam before is a favored mark. Once victims send money, scammers put their names on a “sucker list,” Special Agent Beining said. Those names and identities are often sold to other criminals.
“We have seen victims become victimized again,” she said.
A Federal Trade Commission study published in 2013 found another telling commonality among all kinds of fraud victims: People who had experienced a negative life event in the previous 24 months ― lost a spouse, divorced, separated or lost a job ― were twice as likely to become the victim of a scam.
In her 2008 book, Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet, psychologist Monica Whitty explained that computer-mediated relationships “can be ‘hyperpersonal’ — more strong and intimate than physical relationships.” Participants can control how they present themselves, creating “idealized avatars” that elicit more trust and intimacy than their real-life, face-to-face selves.
“What happens is, you can see the written text and read it over and over again, and that makes it stronger,” wrote Whitty, who focuses on how cyber technologies affect human beings and now works at the University of Warwick in England.
Law enforcement officials say that victims are often embarrassed to let friends or family know they’re sending money to an online stranger. And should they wise up, they may be threatened and blackmailed by their faux lovers. As insurance that their victims will toe the line, scammers may gather compromising information ― commonly, videos of the victims masturbating at their request.
The scammer may even admit the crime to the victim, but then swear he has actually fallen in love with her. Those who believe the excuses and stay involved may enter into a new level of danger as the scammer begins to groom them to launder stolen money, deliver drugs or scam others. They may also threaten to release those “sex tapes” to gain their victims’ cooperation. More than one woman has wound up charged with crimes.
Victims live around the globe. HuffPost spoke to women in Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Kenya, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States who had been scammed.
Ruth Grover, who lives in northeast England, runs ScamHaters, a website that posts warnings about online profiles that appear to be scammers. She said that currently, women in the Philippines seem to be prime targets, although she doesn’t know why. Many victims there and elsewhere are not wealthy and must borrow the money they send to the scammers.
“We warn a lot of women,” Grover said of her 14-month-old site’s nearly 5,000 posts.
The Most Likely Scammers
Currently, the vast majority of online romance scams aimed at the U.S. originate in Ghana and Nigeria, Beining said, although they’re increasingly coming from within West African expatriate communities in Malaysia, Canada and Britain. In fast-developing parts of the world with high unemployment and postcolonial legacies of political instability and corruption, young men and women may turn to “the 419 game,” a common term for fraud that refers to the Nigerian criminal code.
Nigerian scammers are dubbed “Yahoo boys” because of their onetime fondness for using Yahoo email accounts (many have now switched to Gmail). In Ghana, they’re known as Sakawa Boys, “sakawa” being a Ghanaian term for internet fraud.
While Nigerian scams targeting an international audience, in particular, predate the internet, as The Guardian reported in January, the advent of social networks and email has broadened the potential victim list and changed the game.
These scammers are not just young people set on a career criminal path. Some are students ― one 2006 study suggested as many as 80 percents ― looking for cash. “Many undergraduates in Nigerian universities have embraced internet fraud as a way of life,” wrote researchers Oludayo Tade and Ibrahim Aliyu of the Nigeria’s University of Ibadan. Poverty is certainly a factor; almost half of the 10 million graduates from more than 668 African universities each year can’t find a job.
What’s more, cybercrime can carry a certain cachet in West Africa, according to a research report by Interpol and TrendMicro ― especially when the victims are foreigners. The image of the successful scammer ― who owns expensive cars and multiple houses, sports flashy jewelry and earns the admiration of younger wannabes ― has been etched into Nigerian culture by popular songs and YouTube videos. In his 2007 song “Yahooze,” Nigerian singer Olu Maintain appears to glorify the Yahoo boys’ lavish lifestyle ― although he has denied that was his intent. The video shows luxury cars bearing license plates for each day of the week, beautiful women and expensive liquor on tap, and dollars carelessly tossed on the floor like confetti.
That image is light-years away from the typical standard of living in Nigeria, where the average annual salary is about $3,600 ― roughly $10 a day. Many of the early online scams were run out of pay-per-hour internet cafes, some of which would even shut down to the public while the larger scamming operations took over. With better and cheaper internet connections these days, scammers can often work from home.
Many of these cybercriminals believe the use of “spiritual elements” in conjunction with their internet surfing will increase their chances of success, a 2013 research paper that looked at Nigerian cybercrime explained. They cast a Vodun spell, which is akin to voodoo, to essentially hypnotize their victims into giving up the money. In some cases, this means wearing a “charmed ring” on the right index finger ― the one that hits the enter key to send messages ― and licking a “black powdery substance mixed with honey” before speaking to “maga” (fools) on the phone, according to The Guardian, a Nigerian newspaper, and a 2011 research paper on Ghanian media depictions of occult rituals involved in cyberfraud.
Whatever the power Vodun actually exercises, virtually every expert who spoke to HuffPost for this story noted that many victims seem to fall under the scammer’s spell. When the scam is over, the victims still can’t believe the romance wasn’t real.
Doug Shadel, head of AARP’s fraud watch team and state director of AARP Washington, said the scammers seek to get the victim “under the ether,” so that “the thinking part of their brain just goes numb.” He interviewed a woman scammed out of more than $300,000, who described the experience like this: “I felt like something ― a power outside my control ― took over my body.”
How victims respond after learning that they’ve been scammed ― when they continue to desire the men who they understand are not actually real ― is “certainly not rational,” Shadel told HuffPost. “But then again, the whole transaction is pretty irrational when you think about it.”
How The Scam Unfolds
While the scam storylines vary in detail, they all tend to follow the same trajectory: The victim is identified; a close relationship is rapidly established online; a small amount of money is asked for ― perhaps for a child’s birthday gift ― to test the victim’s readiness; a crisis occurs and a larger amount of money is sought with the promise of it being returned quickly; a series of additional “bleeds” occur until the scammer is exposed or the victim can’t get any more money.
Scammers often work in teams of five or six, with each member playing a specific role, according to experts who study and prosecute online fraud. One person opens communication as the faux lover. Teammates sometimes impersonate a doctor or a nurse demanding to be paid after a medical emergency. Or they pose as work associates or friends of the paramour, to whom the victim can send the money. Young women pretend to be teenage daughters, eager to call the victim “Mom.” If the victim gets suspicious, an accomplice may reach out pretending to be a private investigator offering to track down the scammer for a fee.
It is all scripted: the words the faux lover uses, the love poetry he plagiarizes, the events that unfold in the “relationship.”
One scammer managed a workload of 25 cases at once, impersonating both men and women, according to AARP’s Shadel.
The criminals can download their scripts off plenty of online sites. Last year, a 55-year-old British woman was sentenced to two years in prison for being a scriptwriter for romance scammers. One script she wrote tried to capitalize on an American tragedy. The scammer was supposed to say: “I am a widow. Lost my husband to 9/11 terror attacks in New York. He made it out of the collapsed building but he later died because of heavy dust and smoke and he was asthmatic.”
Even with a script, there can be warning signs for the victims. Sometimes, the scammer may “forget” what was discussed previously or call the victim by a different name. Most scammers go with the generic “honey” or “babe” to avoid the latter mistake.
When the victim seeks a face-to-face meeting, the script offers creative ways for scammers to say no or to cancel later. Some claim they’re working overseas or on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, where internet and cell phone service is spotty so they can’t stay in contact as frequently as they would like.
These Men Are Collateral Damage
To build their false identities, scammers steal a real person’s photos from dating sites, Facebook or even old MySpace accounts. Sometimes thousands of phony online identities are created from one set of stolen photos. The person whose pictures are taken has no idea anything is amiss until victims start to contact them hoping to get their money back or continue the “romance.”
Member of the military are big targets because women gravitate to photos of strong men willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Soldiers represent protection, another appealing trait. Plus, being “deployed overseas” provides scammers with a great cover for erratic communications and no face-to-face meetings.
The Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) receives hundreds of complaints a month from victims who say they formed an online relationship with someone claiming to be a U.S. soldier. The fake soldier asked them for money to cover needed costs such as transportation, “communication fees,” marriage licenses and medical care. (There are no circumstances in which a member of the U.S. military would legitimately ask a civilian to pay for transportation, medical care or administrative fees.)
“I get calls every week and it is very troubling to hear these stories over and over again of people who have sent thousands of dollars to someone they have never met and sometimes have never even spoken to on the phone,” said Army CID spokesman Chris Grey in a press release.
When it comes to photo theft, rank offers no privileges. John F. Campbell was the top U.S. general in Afghanistan when his photos were stolen. Campbell, now retired, took to Facebook to warn people after he and his staff uncovered more than 700 fake profiles using his image in the first six months after he took over the U.S. military command in Kabul.
He wrote: “I am happily married and my wife Ann is very much alive and my children do not need money for any medical procedures. I DO NOT use any dating sites, Skype, Google Plus, Yahoo messenger or any other account.”
Of course, men who are drawn into these scams come from many walks of life. In the case of Dr. Steve G. Jones, a clinical hypnotherapist based in New York, the scammers didn’t just use his photos; they began to pose as him.
About three years ago, Jones began receiving emails from angry women “asking me why I had left them and what I did with the money,” he told HuffPost. He said he still receives “5 to 10 notifications a day” between Facebook messages and people emailing his customer service department. A good part of his life is spent dodging these heartbroken women, some of whom who think he personally ripped them off. “Most of the ladies are frantically attempting to ‘reconnect’ with ‘me,’” he said.
One woman made an appointment for hypnosis with his New York office. She showed up with color printouts of his photos that she believed he had sent her.
“I told her that she is just one of the many victims and she should contact the police, not me,” Jones said. That didn’t go over well with the woman, who insisted the two of them had a romantic relationship that she wanted to continue. She left upset, but still sent him a silver money clip from Tiffany engraved with the word “Dreamy” ― her nickname for the man she believed was him.
When Jones posted on his real Facebook page that HuffPost wanted to speak with women who had been bilked by scammers using his name, more than 50 responded in less than 24 hours. About half indicated that they are still in love with “him.” One woman from Russia sent beseeching requests to HuffPost asking that we convince Jones to respond to her messages.
“It’s like that every day,” Jones said when told about it. “There is not much I know to do.”
Jones has created a Facebook group dedicated to those victims defrauded with his photos. He also posted this public service announcement on YouTube about how to avoid being scammed.
Moving The Money
Criminals have also used the services of pre-digital age businesses to help their scams flourish. The Western Union, for example, was a boon to scammers because it didn’t reliably require identification when money was picked up at its offices, particularly in the developing world.
In January, Western Union agreed to pay $586 million to settle federal charges that fraudulent payments involving a range of scams, including online romances, flowed through its money transfer system for years and that the company knew about and could have prevented those payments ― but didn’t. Western Union employees have even been accused of knowingly participating in those scams. In 2012, the FTC found that a mere 137 of Mexico’s 17,710 Western Union locations accounted for more than 80 percent of reported fraud involving Western Union transfers in that country.
The terms of the settlement with the FTC, the Justice Department and several U.S. attorneys’ offices require the Western Union to pay back certain people who were scammed out of money in transfers the company handled from Jan. 1, 2004, to Jan. 19, 2017. The Justice Department will handle the returning of money. The process for filing a claim has not yet been established.
A statement about the settlement on the Western Union website notes that the company has, over the past five years, increased its overall compliance funding by more than 200 percent and now spends approximately $200 million per year on employee training and security measures.