Mollie Halpern: The FBI says an increasing number of Americans are becoming victims of romance scams originating from West Africa. Perpetrators use legitimate dating websites to defraud people looking for love out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, jewelry, electronics, and even plane tickets. Most of the scams reported to the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana involve fake personas. Scammers often misrepresent their appearance—using photos that are edited or of others.
JD Shamwell is the legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana. He says victims believe they’ve made a love connection over the computer, only to be devastated later when learning the correspondent doesn’t actually exist.
JD Shamwell: The FBI realizes that this is a very delicate situation for a lot of individuals. A lot of individuals who have been victimized truly believe that they are in an actual caring and loving relationship, albeit in a very short period of time.
Halpern: Scammers use stories of fake tragedies, medical problems, and other hardships to solicit money. Criminals will use lines like…
Shamwell: “I have a business that’s profitable, but I’m lacking certain equipment to make it more profitable. I can assure you that if I can get this equipment, then I can make more money and we can be together.”
Halpern: Believing they are in a relationship, some victims break the bank to help their Internet interest. What they’re left with is a broken heart.
Shamwell: Some of these victims are actually taking out second mortgages on their homes, they’re using their retirement funds, they’re doing reverse mortgages, things of that nature. So it’s not that these people have disposable income.
Halpern: Romance scams, a type of crime categorized as confidence fraud In law, fraud is intentional deception to secure unfair or unlawful gain (money or other assets), or to deprive a victim of a legal right. Fraud can violate civil law (e.g., a fraud victim may sue the fraud perpetrator to avoid the fraud or recover monetary compensation) or criminal law (e.g., a fraud perpetrator may be prosecuted and imprisoned by governmental authorities), or it may cause no loss of money, property, or legal right but still be an element of another civil or criminal wrong. The purpose of fraud may be monetary gain or other benefits, for example by obtaining a passport, travel document, or driver's license, or mortgage fraud, where the perpetrator may attempt to qualify for a mortgage by way of false statements.
A fraud can also be a hoax, which is a distinct concept that involves deliberate deception without the intention of gain or of materially damaging or depriving a victim., result in the highest amount of financial losses when compared to other Internet-enabled crimes. In 2015, The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, saw a dollar loss of more than $197 million from confidence frauds.
This number derives from more than 12,000 victim complaints to the IC3. The number of victim complaints between June and December 2015 is more than 900 higher when compared to the same time the year before. These are reported complaints, so the actual number confidence scams is expected to be much higher.
The number of losses between June and December 2015 is more than $27 million higher when compared to the same time the year before.
These numbers are not categorized in a way that is possible to determine how many of the complaints or dollar losses stem from West Africa.
The majority of victims of these scams are between the ages of 40 and 60, male and female. In 2015, 9,890 complaints were received from victims in that age range, while we received just 2,373 complaints from victims 39 and under.
If you do use dating websites, Shamwell suggests being cautious and aware of the indicators. Watch out for incorrect grammar and spelling of the English language. Beware if your digital date professes their love immediately, promises to repay you when they inherit gold or gems, and/or claims immigration officials are demanding bribes from them.
Shamwell: If a person is asking you for any money within one or two conversations, I think that that should be a red flag. I think that if a person is refusing to actually meet you or making excuses not to actually see you face-to-face, I think that that should be another issue also. They need to be diligent and just be a little bit more conscientious on just exactly what they do and how they do it. And they need to realize that if it appears to be too good to be true, it probably is.
Halpern: The FBI works diligently with its law enforcement partners, the Economic and Organized Crime Office, and the Financial Intelligence Center in Ghana on investigations involving romance scams and other crimes.
Shamwell: They work very hard to actually not only identify the people who are committing these crimes but to notify the U.S. government of any issues that they may find. Once that notification is provided, then the FBI comes in and we work with those entities to actually to interview the victims and do our best to actually return funding to them or to actually assist our partners there in Ghana to prosecute the individuals who have been identified in these crimes.
Halpern: Let the FBI help you with your case. If you or someone you know is a victim of this crime, contact your local FBI office or the nearest American Embassy or consulate.
Shamwell: We do want to prosecute the individuals involved, but also, we do really want to truly make sure that we provide assistance to those who have been victimized.
Halpern: And report these scams to www.ic3.gov. Thanks for listening to this episode of Inside the FBI. I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau.