How Scams Work? Impersonation Romance Scams

African Style Impersonation Scams

A SCARS Series

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How Scams Work?

The Impersonation Romance Scam

Almost all scams, frauds, or confidence tricks or schemes work along similar flows or have characteristics in common.

Common Traits

Almost all socially engineered scams or fraud have some basic common factors:

  • A stranger contacts you – by email, phone, or online
  • They use photos & identities of real people to scam
  • A request to connect – in the case of personal contacts OR a business offer
  • There is a special situation or emergency with a historical backstory
  • Communications is difficult – technical excuses, security requirements, bad timing
  • There is urgency – the emergency is happening now and help is needed, or this offer is only valid for a short time
  • Often it begins with small steps
  • As the relationship unfolds larger demands are made (money usually)
  • It may involve creating or giving access to financial accounts
  • The victim is told to keep it secret – it is confidential, there is danger, or others would not understand
  • As the money runs out the tone changes – may result in threats, or making the victim feel they are betraying the scammer
  • During the different stages of the connection it seems like different people are talking with the victim
  • If the victim confronts the scammer there will be denials but eventually, the scammer goes silent
  • The scammer comes back after a time (though usually not the same one)

To learn more about some of these see: What Drives People To Be Scammed?

How This Scam Works

Dating and romance scams often take place through online dating websites, but scammers may also use social media, online games or apps, or email to make contact. They have even been known to telephone their victims as a first introduction. These scams are also known as catfishing. [Note catfishing is a derogatory term against women – but is used because it remains in common use]

Scammers typically create fake online profiles designed to lure victims in. They may use fictional or fake names, or falsely take on the identities of real, trustworthy people such as military personnel, aid workers, professionals or business people working abroad, or other prominent celebrities or people.

Dating and romance scammers will express strong emotions for the victim in a relatively short period of time (days or a couple of weeks), and will suggest that the victim move the communication away from the website to a more private channel, such as WhatsApp or Google HangOut, phone, email or other instant messaging. They often claim to be from the victim’s own country or another western country, but traveling or working overseas.

Scammers will go to great lengths to gain the victim’s interest and trust, such as showering the victim with loving words (almost at once), sharing personal information, and even sending the victim gifts (typically using stolen credit cards). They may take weeks or months to build what may feel like the romance of a lifetime and may even pretend to book flights to visit the victims, but never actually come – offering one excuse after another.

Once they have gained the victim’s trust and the victim’s defenses are down, they will ask (either subtly or directly) for money, gifts, or banking/credit card details or access.* They may also ask the victim to send pictures or videos of yourself, possibly of an intimate nature.

Often the scammer will pretend to need the money for some sort of personal or business emergency. For example, they may claim to have a severely ill family member who requires immediate medical attention such as an expensive operation, or they may claim financial hardship due to an unfortunate run of bad luck such as a failed business or robbery in the street.  The scammer may also claim they want to travel to visit you, but cannot afford it unless the victim is able to lend them money to cover flights or other travel expenses.

In the case of military impersonations, the scammer will claim they need money to purchase leave time or to exit the military to be with the victim. They will often claim to be on a “Peace-keeping” mission and in a war zone.

Sometimes the scammer will send the victim valuable items such as laptop computers and mobile phones, and ask that they are to resend them somewhere else. They will invent some reason why they need the victim to send the goods but this is just a way for them to cover up their criminal activity.*  Alternatively they may ask the victim to buy the goods themselves and send them somewhere. The victim might even be asked to accept money into their bank account and then transfer it to someone else.*

* Warning – the above scenarios are very likely to be forms of money laundering which is a criminal offense. Never agree to transfer money or merchandise for someone else that you only know online!

Sometimes they will blend different types of scams together to take advantage of the relationship that has been developed. The scammer may integrate what is known as a 419Advance Fee Fraud scams – the scammer will tell the victim about a large amount of money or gold or other assets that they need to transfer out of their current country or some other place and offer the victim a share of it. They will tell the victim they need some money to cover administrative fees or taxes.

In other cases, the scammer may integrate an investment scam into a relationship since they know that a victim infatuated with a relationship will be less critical in financial decision-making.

The Impact On Victims

In rare cases, dating and romance scammers can also pose a risk to the victim’s personal safety as they are often part of international criminal networks (though this is very unlikely with African or Indian-based scams). However. scammers many times attempt to lure their victims overseas, putting them in very dangerous situations that can have tragic consequences – that can result in capture or death.

Regardless of how the scam was discovered, the victim could end up losing large amounts of money. Online dating and romance scams cheat victims around the world out of hundreds of billions every year. The money sent to scammers is almost always impossible to recover. Also, it frequently ends up in the hands of terrorist or hostile nations such as Iran or North Korea.

In addition, victims very often suffer long-lasting emotional betrayal at the hands of someone the victim thought loved them. This results in trauma, that can be severe leading to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). All scam victims are encouraged to seek local trauma counseling or therapy and join a true victims support group, such as those SCARS offers