You might think that you will never fall for a romance scam, that they are outdated, inauthentic, and very obviously after your money. But security experts have warned that there has been an increase in all kinds of online fraud during the coronavirus pandemic.
It happened to my friend Beth.
She once mentioned that she had met a man online who was in the military. She thought it was a nice coincidence, because my partner is also in the armed forces. But the more she told me, the louder the alarm bell rang.
Although he was deployed on a “top secret mission” to a very dangerous part of the world, “Alexander” managed to message Beth the entire time. He was handsome, charming and affectionate.
When she showed me a picture, my heart sank. Alexander’s uniform and rank did not match the role he said he had or the unit he said he belonged to. There was no reason for him to be where he claimed to be.
He was certainly not the man in the picture.
‘It could be anyone, anywhere’
Telling Beth was difficult. “It made me tremble,” she said.
“You start to think that this might be someone you might be lucky enough to meet and see if there is any potential to see how it goes… then right after that is the shock that you spoke to someone. ‘one who is not the person he said he was and who could be anyone, anywhere in the world. ”
If it hadn’t been for the coincidence of our joint military connection, Beth probably wouldn’t have mentioned it to me or anyone else – he had already woven a web of secrecy around his work.
In fact, telling someone else about it is probably your best chance not to get sucked in.
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Alexander contacted Beth on a dating platform, but very quickly asked her to switch to a messaging app.
According to cybersecurity expert Professor Alan Woodward, crooks much prefer to operate in a private environment, far from the possibility of being seen by others – whether it is a direct messaging platform or a locked social network account.
“You actually give them a little cover-up,” he says. “There won’t be anyone who can publicly see that the same person who might have tried to rip them off is now trying to rip you off.” ”
I realized that after making my own private Instagram account, I was inundated with follow-up requests and private messages, all apparently from men, many of whom claimed to be in military positions.
The military represents “authority, trust, romance” to many people, says New York Times reporter Jack Nicas, who has made a documentary about romance con artists and their victims.
“For many, especially Central American women, the military is ‘the ideal man’,” he says.
I wondered how real people would feel in the photos the crooks were using if they knew, and then got a little glimpse myself when someone set up a fake Instagram account using my photos and started messaging people – mostly men, I think. – by saying that it was my “secret” space.
I only found out when people started texting me asking what was going on. It was sickening, alarming and maddening.
I’ll probably never know exactly what the “fake me” said and to whom. All in the form of private messages from an account with my name and face on it.
Instagram deleted it when I complained, but refused to tell me where in the world it had been saved. Maybe it was even Alexander, who found me through Beth’s followers.
The platform said that impersonating a person or organization is against its guidelines and that those accounts are deleted once they become aware of it. A quick search, however, reveals that there are plenty.
For crooks, it’s worth the risk, as the payout can be huge.
There are people who work to try to help victims of romance scams, and they hear a lot of horror stories.
One of them is Lisa Forte, of Red Goat Cyber-Security, who was contacted by a British lawyer in her 40s who had given $ 350,000 to a scammer in South America – which she obtained by remortgaging her House.
Wayne May, who runs Scam Survivors, told us about a man in Russia who gave $ 250,000 to a man he believed he had a secret relationship with.
And Jack Nicas interviewed Renee Holland of Florida, who transferred her savings to a man posing as the US Army. She was then killed by her husband.
Money, especially if sent by wire transfer, is usually gone forever.
Mr Nicas has tracked Ms Holland’s con artist to Nigeria – where love con artists are commonplace. There, young men sometimes work in groups, sometimes individually, and pose as men and women online.
He interviewed a man called Akinola Bolaji, a 35-year-old Nigerian who said he had been a “Yahoo Boy” as love con artists are colloquially known.
Mr Bolaji said finding casualties was a numbers game.
“You can send messages to thousands [of women]”He told the New York Times.” Only a few will answer. Five will comply. Of the five, three may not have any money. Two will get it. Out of two, one may not be able to spend the money. But we will surely send. ”
He admitted to feeling guilty about this practice. “But poverty won’t make you feel pain because you need the money,” he said.
Mr. Bolaji says he stopped dating scams because he now has an authentic relationship with a lady in the US state of Georgia. We only have his word.
The long game
In the few weeks that Alexander has texted my friend Beth, he hasn’t asked for cash. This is not surprising, says Nicas.
“You don’t even start asking for money for maybe a few weeks or months,” he said. “You have to gain their trust first, because if you say on day one, ‘I need the money,’ they’ll know you’re a con artist. ”
Beth is adamant she wouldn’t have sent one – but crooks are super persuasive, Ms. Forte says.
“They’re making rapport and they’re slowly taking you on this journey from caution to re-mortgage your home. I think we are all vulnerable in the right situation. “
Where to seek help
- Victim Support offers free and confidential advice via Supportline on 08 08 16 89 111 and / or live chat
My Support Space is designed to help manage the impact of crime on individuals
- Scams can be reported to Action Fraud