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Online Dating Scams: A Multimillion Dollar Industry

By Angelita Felixberto - Feb 20, 2014 at 9:03PM

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The internet has revolutionized modern romance and dating, and online scammers are taking full advantage of the anonymity that online dating offers.

"I do not know how to express the conflicting emotions that have surged like a storm through my heart all night long. You have the greatest soul, the noblest nature, the sweetest, most loving heart I have ever known, and my love and admiration for you have increased so much since we've known each other that it still amazes me. You are more wonderful and lovely in my eyes than you ever were before; and my pride and joy and gratitude that you should love me with such a perfect love are beyond all expression. Love Always,"

This kind of sweet, hopelessly romantic literary gesture slays hundreds of thousands of hearts, and lays financial waste to victims around the globe thanks to Internet schemes designed to take advantage of lonely hearts and trusting souls.

The sweetheart scam was born

In 2005, Barb Sluppick met an Englishman through one of her online message groups. He said he lived in Arizona but was working in Virginia. The picture he sent showed an attractive gentleman. Though she was at times leery because she'd never actually met him, the romance blossomed.

Then the Englishman needed a little help cashing checks. During their first phone call, Barb said, she got sick to her stomach when instead of the proper British accent she expected, the voice was of a Nigerian man. The man eventually acknowledged that he was from Lagos.

Theresa Smalley fell in love around that same time. In his picture, Richie was a bearded guy curled up on a couch with his cat. It started with a chat, then friendly emails, then it swelled into passion. He sent her chocolates, a teddy bear, and an "I love you" balloon for Valentine's Day. Smalley was smitten, and she couldn't wait for Richie to visit her in Ohio after he finished his job ... in Nigeria. 

Months down the road, Richie said he had problems cashing money orders and asked if Smalley could help. Over a few weeks, as he prepared to leave the country, Smalley cashed them for him -- until her bank notified her that there were alterations in the money orders. They had been purchased for $20, then "washed" and "doctored" to read $900. Smalley still held out hope until a friend pointed her to an Internet site devoted to Nigerian scams. Smalley was devastated. Her four-month whirlwind romance was only a ploy to earn her trust.

Sluppick and Smalley founded the Yahoo group "Romancescams" to share their stories and hopefully prevent others from suffering the pain, humiliation, and financial loss of of online romance fraud. As of May 2013, their organization has grown to more than 59,000 people who together reported losses totaling more than $25 million. And that's only a portion of all losses reported to law enforcement officials, which is likely only a fraction of the total crimes perpetrated but never reported.

Lonely hearts club

No website is immune from the claws of the online romance scammers. Through ChristianMingle.com, a Nigerian man swindled a 66-year-old divorcee out of $300,000. Under the guise of "David Holmes," an Irishman working on a Scottish oil rig, he built a relationship, eventually asking for help paying off his daughter's tuition. Then she helped him fund his oil rig business, pulling money from her retirement account and refinancing her home for the man she loved.

She was in the process of sending him another $200,000 when her family, with the help of Turkish banking officials and the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office, froze the transaction. The Skype and email accounts used by "David Holmes" were traced back to Nigeria and Turkish authorities were able to nab an associate of the scammer at the bank designated for the fund transfer.

Match.com, consistently ranking as one of the world's largest dating sites, employs a team of fraud agents to detect potential scams. But the company itself reports that "sophisticated criminals" slip through its checking process.

People on social sites -- not just the dating variety -- have fallen prey, too. Ryan (who asked his last name to be withheld) reported that he was hanging out in a chatroom devoted to fans of the Grateful Dead. "The thing that duped me was the whole music issue. She seemed to be into the music I was into." Five weeks later, he had sent $15,200 to the seductive scammer, only to have the bank call, freezing all $11,000 in his bank account -- most of it from a student loan earmarked for the next semester's tuition.

Donning the military uniform

Frequently, members of the military are unwitting tools in the deception, according to Romancescams.com. Maj. Gordon Hannett's grinning face, with three happy children in the photo, has been used to seduce lonely women online, stealing their hearts and thousands of dollars. A 46-year-old reserve military policeman at a base in Washington and an attorney in civilian life, Maj. Hannett stated in an interview with Army Times that he has heard from over 300 women complaining about online romance scams using his identity.

Maj. Hannett is certainly not alone. Special agents from the Army Criminal Investigation Command have warned repeatedly that photos of soldiers, from privates to the highest-ranking generals, are being used to seduce for love and solicit money from vulnerable online romance seekers. Many of these soldiers remain unaware.

Usually, the scammers use photos and identities of real soldiers, including name and rank. Other times, the soldier whose identity was stolen was killed in action and the criminals use the hero's identity to further their twisted scam. In other cases, perpetrators use photos of married soldiers from which heart-tugging stories of dead wives and single-fatherhood bait and hook the compassion of lonely women.

The global business of online romance scams

The art of weaving identities, stories, personalities, and characters often too good to be true is a careful product of a well-organized business, romancescams.com reports.

Scamming organizations often have hierarchical structures, where scammers work in groups and in shifts, and follow a proven procedure -- they have scripts to follow and they get advice from more experienced members of their group.

The successful ones typically ask a lot of questions about the victim's dream and weave this fairy tale into a reality he or she can provide, being attentive, sensitive, caring, empathetic, and patient to build a connection with the victim. Their well-concocted stories tug the heart strings of a victim, and they keep pulling those strings until they have the mark under an influential spell. Then the requests begin.

While some scammers profess undying love in record time, others patiently court their mark for months before asking for money. Sooner or later, the scammers will ask for money to be sent outside the U.S. The amount constantly grows and the requests never stop, each accompanied with legitimate-sounding reasons. Varied and imaginative requests for money are common, usually attached to financial emergencies -- an accident, travel expenses, medical needs for a child, and for those posing as military, pursuits outside deployment such as transportation costs, communication fees, and medical fees.

For some, the heartbreak doesn't end after the initial scam. Victims are put on a contact list of targets, romancescams says. Miriam Munro of Australia not only lost $60,000 to a romantic scam, she went through the unbearably painful realization of being duped a second time. She met "Sean King," who claimed to be another victim of a scammer and claimed that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, a Nigerian law enforcement agency, could help her investigate and recover her lost money. After paying thousands of dollars again for anti-money laundering and insurance certificates, she realized she was on the same fraudulent trail.

The global money trail

The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center reported in 2013 that people 50 years and over are the most common victims, and the most lucrative for scammers. A quarter (1,152 out of 4,476) of the complaints against online romance scams came from this segment. The total amount reported lost to scam from this age group is almost 70% of the total loss ($38,836,234.14 out of $55,991,601.08 in 2012).

MoneyGram International (MGI -0.77%), which seems to be the money transfer of choice for scammers, reported that in 2011 it refunded 4,870 transactions amounting to $13.7 million in foiled romance scams.

The Anti-Fraud Centre in Canada reported that in 2012, romance scams grossed more than $16 million in losses reported by Canadians. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission reported a loss of AU$25.3 million from 2,770 incidents of romance scams brought to their attention in 2013.

The National Crime Agency in Britain has warned that online romance scams have elevated to inviting victims to visit Africa to meet the person they have fallen in love with, only to be kidnapped.

Des Gregor, a 56-year-old Australian, was held hostage by a Mali gang for 12 days. He was supposed to meet his bride, a woman he met through the Internet. But from the airport, he was taken to a room where two men with a machete and a homemade pistol began beating him, stealing his cash and credit cards. Gregor was rescued when Australian and Mali officials, alerted by Gregor's family, lured the kidnappers to the Canadian Embassy for their ransom.

Authorities in several countries concede the issue is likely far even greater than they are aware. Many victims choose not to report their experiences due to embarrassment and the emotional and psychological impact. Even without knowing the full extent, this particularly painful form of cybercrime is being perpetrated in an international and multi-million, if not billion-dollar crime enterprise. While law enforcement agencies seek to protect unwitting and vulnerable victims after the fact, awareness is the most effective tool for fighting these criminals who do their evil deeds in the name of love.

Angelita Felixberto has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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