This Is What It Feels Like To Be The Victim Of An International Romance Scam

BuzzFeed News spoke to women who fell for men that turned out to be elaborate fake identities created by fraudsters.

Includes an interview with SCARS’ Chairman Dr. Tim McGuinness

By Patrick Smith, BuzzFeed News Reporter – Posted on November 12, 2016, at 3:52 a.m.
Preprinted to preserve this article for SCARS’ History Archives – Copyright Acknowledged

Mary can’t stand Kanye West.

Her Facebook friends know as much – she just finds him too full of himself.

“Kanye said he was stronger than the guys in the military or something, and I put something on Facebook saying they should put him through Navy Seals training and see how fast he gets his ass out of there,” she said.

Now in her 70s, Mary – her name has been changed at her request – finds Facebook a way to keep in touch with her friends and four grown-up children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

After two failed marriages – she says her second husband was abusive – she now lives alone with a loaded gun beside her bed and practises martial arts in her spare time. She is a tough, uncompromising character with a wicked sense of humour.

On 3 January, someone Mary hadn’t seen before commented on her Facebook status about Kanye. Christoph, a silver-haired, handsome, middle-aged man with a kind smile, posted that he liked her Facebook comment. She said: “Thank you.”

“Then I went to his Facebook page, which I do sometimes when people comment, to see he wasn’t a nut,” she said, speaking on the phone late one night from her home in Southern California.

“I left a comment saying he was a handsome guy. And after that we just started talking – basic things like where he lived and what he did, that kind of stuff.

“He was just a really sweet guy. I don’t know, I just thought… I don’t know what I thought. I’ve never done anything like this before. I can’t even tell my kids – my son would kill me.”

They began chatting every day via Facebook Messenger. The conversation was casual, just typical Facebook chat. Mary thought Christoph was good-looking and polite, although he made a few unusual grammatical errors and displayed a few more gaps in his US cultural knowledge than a successful businessman from Pennsylvania really should.

He even sent a video, apparently from a hotel room. “Hey you,” he said, staring straight into a shaky desktop camera. “I just wanted you to know that I’m thinking about you, I love you, and I hope you had a great day.”

The man in the video never says anyone’s name. Thousands of people have received that same video thinking it was for them. Mary would never have imagined it at the time, but the man she thought was Christoph doesn’t exist. The man in the video is the victim of computer hacking and identify theft. She is the victim of a romance scam.

The scammer had fooled Mary into thinking he was a real man who was interested in her. It worked. She said she feels foolish now, but at the time Christoph’s flattery, poetry, and charm were all too real.

After a couple of weeks Christoph said he was due to travel to Nigeria for a freelance job worth $2.3 million. He offered to travel to California to see Mary just before he made his way to Africa – it was a bizarre plan given the distances involved and the fact that he would be on the West Coast only for a few hours, but he said he was still keen to see her. But he never turned up, claiming that his son was ill and needed hospital treatment.

Then, he made his first request for money.

“When he was in West Africa he said he was having problems because his debit card wouldn’t work. And I remember thinking, y’know, You’re supposed to be a big businessman, you’re at the Hilton hotel, and I’m sure you’re not the only businessman there, so why doesn’t your card work?

“And then he was telling me all these sob stories; it was another one every single day. He needed money to help pay his hotel bill because it was $500 a week – he didn’t know what he was gonna do because he couldn’t pay, and I told him, ‘I don’t have that kind of money! What do you think I am? You know how much money I make at my job.’”

Christoph maintained that his son was in hospital and he needed money for his child’s tests.

“So he keeps going on and on about this and I really felt bad about it, and that’s when I broke down and I sent him $100. I was really kinda pissed off when I did it, but I was more mad at myself than at him.”

Mary had made the most important transition in the eyes of online fraudsters: She had gone from a nonpaying victim to a paying one.

‘Christoph’, who had claimed to be Belgian-American, was in fact the creation of a Nigerian man – possibly a team of young men – working in what has mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar industry based upon one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative crimes of the digital age.

The Christoph persona would ask for more money – $500 for a hotel bill, $2,000 for a tax bill – and as Mary continuously refused, he became more and more angry. “Can’t you take out a loan on your house?” he asked her by text message.

“I told him, ‘What do you want me to do? Go out on the corner and sell my ass?’” Mary said.

Something had always bugged Mary about Christoph – something wasn’t right, and her doubts grew the more irascible his demands became.

She googled his name and discovered it was being mentioned on the many blossoming romance scam message boards and forums, which hum with desperate and determined victims who are trying to uncover the real identity of their tormentors and stop others from making the same mistake.

The penny dropped when Mary saw ‘Christoph’s’ picture used with another name, a different age, and a different location. And there were more: In one profile he was in Colombia, in another he was in the UK, and then in Germany. He had listings on, on gay dating sites, and many on Facebook. In some of the guises he was Latino, and in some he was in the army or the navy, but he was usually widowed.

The list of email addresses for fake identities used with the picture, posted onto a romance scams victim forum, filled two A4 pages.

Mary confronted Christoph, who quickly denied everything. Another account, claiming to be his cousin, Kelly, got in touch and told Mary everything was fine. This is a common tactic of professional scammers: using a second or third fake profile gives validity and reassures some victims that they are not caught up in a conspiracy. Who would be bold enough to make up that they have a cousin called Kelly, who also has their own social media profile, just to fool someone?

At first, Mary planned to put an ad in the local paper to find Christoph and ask the local police department to help, thinking the man in the photo was posing as many other people. It took her a while to figure out that the ‘person’ she had been speaking to didn’t exist at all, and the photos she had been shown were stolen.

Eventually, she confronted him directly. Something unusual happened: He confessed.

He said he was really a 27-year-old graduate from Oyo, a large university town about 60km north of Ibadan in the west of Nigeria.

The pair even had a video chat in which he explained the reasons why he scams people. Even when talking in his own voice, it seems as if he is still trying to manipulate her.

“I have had long conversations with him about why he did this and he said he was influenced by the horrible living conditions of the area he lives in. He said he lost his parents two years ago in a car accident and inherited their house and rents out a room to help with money cause he cannot find work,” Mary said via email.

“We have had video calls and he has apologised over and over for what he has done. He said that during the months we talked and he was supposed to be Christoph, that he fell in love with me and now after talking to me realised what a mistake doing this was and how it hurts the person on the other end.

“He said talking to me has changed his life and has sworn never to do this again. I have told him I will have him arrested now that I have so much information on him. He said some others in the area are still doing these scams.”

The conversations were cathartic for Mary, but she still couldn’t find closure. In the same email, she added: “It’s hard to get over the fact that I conversed with this person I assumed to be Christoph for months, made plans with him, talked to him of personal things, believed all the things he told me and fell deeply in love with this person.

“It hurts more because I fell in love with another woman’s husband. I still cry a lot and my heart is broken but I am really working very hard at getting over this. It’s not easy.”

In the call, he mentioned that he wanted to come to America – normally a scammer’s precursor to asking for financial help to buy an air ticket. In another conversation later on, he said he’d contracted malaria.

Last month, Mary said she was doing fine and had toughened up after finding out the truth, which she discovered only weeks after the scammer first contacted her. Like many victims, she is now tracking down and seeking to expose other scammers. She has learned, she said, a very big lesson.

As for the scammer, he is also trying to change. BuzzFeed News tracked him down to Oyo state and after a week of negotiating with a third party, David agreed to speak us on the condition that we don’t use his real name.

Is he definitely the man behind the Christoph profile? “Yes,” he replied down a faint phone line. Has he received money from victims? “Yes.”

So why does he do it?

“Where I live a lot of people do this kind of stuff. The living conditions here are very, very terrible and the poverty is very, very extreme – they think it is the only way they can live and survive,” he said. “The only way they can get money, go to school and pay the tuition fees and eat.

“I don’t know what to tell you … It’s hard to eat three square meals a day. And that led me to do such a thing to her [Mary]. My four siblings, I care for them and the responsibility is on me to care for them.”

“I had to do that to sponsor my education – the money from her was used to pay my school fees and all that.”

David told us he’d been scamming people for around 14 months, but had only had received money from three victims. The most he’d got from a single victim was $6,000. Some victims take months or even a year to start paying. He’s not involved in any scams currently, he claimed.

At the start it was a full-time job: He spent seven days a week talking to and bonding with victims, creating what he called the right “chemistry”.

That involves writing a lot of pre-prepared scripts and poems, but also flattery.

“We have a lot of written material here, a lot of words. We write that, then we ask questions like ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Do you love me?’

“We choose nice words, so that when we send them they feel love. Whenever they read those words it sounds so lovely to them and from thereon they feel in love, you know.”

Women are more susceptible than men, according to David, and particularly those in their 60s and 70s.

David works alone and not as part of a group. He described the process of actually getting the money from victims, which involves getting a fake ID card with the name of the fake profile he’s using at that time.

“For instance, you create an ID with the name Christoph and take it to the bank. So that’s how you get the money,” he said.

Even with its unpredictable nature, scamming generates more money than working. “And there are no jobs here,” David added. Nigeria’s unemployment rate has more than doubled since January 2015 to 13.3%.

But does David understand the hurt and anger that he’s caused by tricking people into thinking someone loves them?

“I feel for her and I am willing to change. I wish to leave this community where I live. I told her I’m sorry and I apologise, and I told her I know how she feels,” he said.

“I’m trying to leave this place where I live because there are a lot of people doing it here, that’s the main situation here.”

Mary was the victim of a professional, sophisticated, global industry that by some estimates is doubling in size every year.

The US-based Society of Citizens Against Romance Scams (SCARS) estimates that there were 600,000 romance-scam victims globally last year and that there will be a million new victims globally in 2016 – and these are the victims who report the crimes. Most don’t.

SCARS also predicts, based on its own research from studying global police data, that romance scams will see $8 billion sent to Nigeria this year alone.

SCARS’ founder, Tim McGuinness, an early dotcom entrepreneur and a passionate campaigner for better awareness of romance scams, told BuzzFeed News that the problem is larger and more complex than anyone really knows.

He said there are groups as large as 9,000 people running scams in Ghana.

“They’re broken up in models very similar to terrorist cells,” he said. “There’s a small advisory group, usually 6 to 25 individuals, although there are exceptions and some much larger groups of 600 or 700. But they’re part of the same leadership structure that includes several thousand [people] where the leadership pyramid is making a piece of it all.”

He estimates that there are between 20,000 and 40,000 romance scammers operating in Nigeria today. Nigeria, he said, accounts for around 70% of scams, with Ghana in second place with 20%. And increasingly, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam are becoming the growth hot spots for romance fraud.

Romance scams are an evolution of the kind of email fraud now stereotypically associated with Nigeria, the advance-fee scam or 419 scam (so-called after the Nigerian criminal code that governs it) that involves convincing someone to pay a small amount in order to release a huge payment.

They have grown simply because they often work. Scammers have developed a very effective system, involving several psychological tricks to manipulate victims.

Typically, they steal the pictures of an attractive person and where possible, videos too, then create several social media profiles with that picture with many different names (some names and pictures are used over and over again in different scams). SCARS estimates that 50 million fake Facebook profiles are created every year, for various purposes including romance scams.

A single victim might be worked by as many as five or six scammers at one time, so there’s always someone awake and responsive when the victim is online.

Manchester and Liverpool are common locations given on fake Facebook profiles, but since Leicester City’s unlikely victory in the 2015-16 English Premier League season, there has been a noticeable increase in the use of Leicester, perhaps a sign of English football’s cultural importance in western Africa.

The scammers populate their fake profiles with activity, to make them look more believable. Some experts call this “bingeing”, whereby scammers – who are running hundreds and in some cases thousands of fake accounts – “like” a huge number of different pages and interests once a week and come back the week after to do the same. Scammers like to add pictures of puppies and children to make their characters seem endearing and nonthreatening.

As for the young men – some call themselves Yahoo Boys – who take part in these online frauds, many are undergraduate students living on or near university campuses, in commune-like arrangements.

As one Nigerian academic has pointed out, some scams rely on corruption in money-transfer branches and in the banking sector. Some 2,000 banking jobs have been lost across the country due to recent economic downturn, with many of those made redundant now working in casual, less lucrative banking positions, making ideal allies.

Several Facebook pages, many with Yahoo Boys in the title, boast of the riches that have apparently been generated through online fraud. The comments are full of would-be fraudsters pleading with the leaders for a chance to be involved.

But where do they get the fake profile pictures? Who is the man Mary thought was Christoph?

BuzzFeed News found that the man in the pictures and videos sent to Mary was not called Christoph but Ted Landgraf, a businessman who runs a procurement strategy company in Cambridge, Maryland, that he started in 1986.

Landgraf first learned in 2014 that his likeness was being used to defraud people, after an attorney from Los Angeles got in touch to warn him.

It was shortly after this that he discovered his Gmail account had been hacked. Hackers helped themselves to hundreds of his private pictures and videos, some going back all the way to his high school days.

His images may have been used in not just hundreds but many thousands of scam attempts.

“A couple of years ago I found my picture on Google in an army outfit – I’ve never served in the army. They cropped my face in there. I supposedly lived in Colombia, I was 57 years old, and my wife had died,” he told BuzzFeed News via Skype.

“I’ve had people approach me about this. People are using my pictures on Facebook but with a different name. So these guys are very good at what they do.”

Landgraf, who is happily married, is angry and taken aback by the scale of romance frauds. He no longer uses social media and he has become much more wary in his dealings with new contacts and strangers.

“I don’t always respond to people who get in contact because I don’t know who is real and who is not. We have a lot riding on this, with my company, my reputation. I love my wife – we’ve been married for almost 30 years, we have three beautiful kids.

“This is about me, but it’s not about me – it’s about the people who get duped. They’re lonely and they want companionship. It’s upsetting.”

Leaning into the camera during our video call, Landgraf was steely-eyed: “You can say that you talked to the real Ted Landgraf, and these other guys are scammers and they should be locked up in prison and have their balls cut off. It is terrible what these guys are doing. It’s not just the money, it’s the emotional trauma.

“Don’t fall in love with pictures. Check people out. Go into things slowly. Anyone who won’t do a face-to-face, run from them.”

Louise wasn’t looking for love, or anything in particular, when, in July 2015, she heard the ping of a handsome American soldier sending her a friend request.

She is in her 50s, divorced, and living with her teenage daughter in the north-west of England. She had two strokes, and cannot work. Warm and witty, Louise managed to crack jokes about the time she lost so much.

“He said he was a soldier and his name, he told me, was Brian, and he was working in Nigeria. I was led to believe he was on the frontline, working for special forces, which meant that the times he came online were stupid times,” she said.

“Earlier on in the communication he’d said he wanted to come here to England to be with me and that he needed money to be able to come out of Nigeria on leave.”

After much chatting online, Brian said he wanted Louise to pay his airfare to England. She refused, saying she had nothing to give. But then Brian tried another tactic: He said he had found someone to pay half.

“In the end I sent the other half because I believed that his friend’s wife who lived in Germany had sent some. It made everything ring more true when someone else was involved.”

But around Christmas 2015, when Brian was supposed to be travelling to England, someone going by the name Chris got in touch to say Brian had been shot and badly injured. Again came a request for money.

After his supposed release from hospital, Brian started communicating with Louise again and claimed that he wasn’t allowed back into his special-ops army base in Nigeria because he had booked six weeks’ leave. He was living rough in the local village, he said.

Still unaware that she was in the middle of a complex, multi-person romance scam carried out by sophisticated criminals in Nigeria, Louise still believed the story.

She believed it when he said he was sent back to Texas via Dublin and kept in solitary confinement, only sending her messages via a friendly guard.

But she didn’t buy every aspect of the narrative: “He then says, ‘I think we’re going back to Nigeria, and there’s four of us going together in a helicopter’ – all the way from America to Nigeria in a fucking helicopter, I don’t think so.”

After apparently arriving back in Nigeria, it didn’t take long for Brian to start asking for money again. There had been a flood and he had lost everything, he said. He even sent pictures he said were of the running water and the devastation it caused.

Louise sent more money. In total she sent at least £4,000. She kept the MoneyGram receipts in a tin box in her bedroom, but even now she can’t bring herself to work out the final amount.

“And I was absolutely on the bones of my arse [broke],” she said. “My daughter said, ‘You need to get a job, because you’ve got no money, we’ve got no food, we’ve got nothing,’ and I was saying, ‘I can’t work, I’m disabled.'”

Eventually, during the summer this year, Louise got an email from someone from a romance-scam forum warning her Brian was not real —and that the scammer talking to her had been doing it to at least two other women.

Louise said she had emotionally switched off from Brian by the time this revelation came – she badly wanted him to give the money back, as he always promised he would. But the shock of the fraud, the sheer scale of it, hit her like a fist.

“It’s been dreadful. It’s horrible. I had no idea. We’d been communicating for 12 months.

“People need to be aware of this – the most upsetting part about the whole thing is that other people don’t get it. It’s very difficult to tell your friends because they don’t get it because they think you’re fucking stupid.

“Friends that I’ve had for years just couldn’t understand it. Forty-year friendships and they’re saying, ‘What did you do that for?’ They’ve got no idea. I really, really believed Brian.

“It is like a bereavement. Like a sudden, unexpected bereavement. And it’s horrible. And you go through that on your own.”

Many victims don’t tell friends or family about their ordeal, but Louise felt she had no choice.

“This started when my daughter was 17 and she was very aware that her mother wasn’t happy and that something wasn’t right. She couldn’t work out why her mother was crying all the time and why my depression was getting worse and worse, because I hadn’t been well anyway.

“Eventually I had to tell her the truth, and that was really difficult. To tell your daughter that ‘Well, all the money we haven’t had, love, is because I’ve been sending it to Nigeria.’”

The three victims of the fraud perpetrated by the “Brian” persona were all put in touch; all three became friends and Louise still speaks to one of them every day.

The same pictures – apparently stolen from the Instagram profile of an American soldier, whom BuzzFeed News was unable to identify – have also been used on fake profiles with other names.

By chance, a friend of one of the victims is married to a man who works in African law enforcement. She told him all about the scams, the fake names, and how much money had been lost.

Louise said that this led to the arrest of Michael, the scammer behind the Brian character, who was sentenced to 12 months in jail, and an accomplice who was behind the Chris character, who got five years.

She said police found printed lists of thousands of potential and past victims at a house in Lagos, each colour-coded according to whether they had given money yet: green for yes, red for no.

And Louise is hardly the only victim of this fast-growing crime in the UK.

Action Fraud, the national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre, told BuzzFeed News that it received 2,182 reports of dating fraud in the first half of 2016 and losses of almost £20 million. In the whole of 2015, Action Fraud received 3,300 reports with losses totalling £23.7 million.

In January this year, two Nigerians living in London were jailed for a total of five and a half years for scamming a recently divorced woman out of £1.6 million. By chance, the fake name used in that case was Christopher Anderson, almost the same name of the profile used to scam Mary in California.

Stereotypical victims are often middle-aged women who have been through a divorce.

“It’s more lucrative targeting older-aged women and we’re getting more of them in the samples. They’ve always lost more money,” said Monica Whitty, professor of cyberpsychology at Warwick University and an expert in the effects of romance scams.

Does this mean older people are more susceptible to being duped by younger, more internet-savvy criminals? Not at all, said Whitty: “They might be reporting it more but that’s not because more of them are victims, when you do a representative sample of the population.

“In contrast to what you might think, actually having knowledge of scams and how to use the internet doesn’t make you any less vulnerable. People who perceive that they have good cybersecurity knowledge are actually more likely to be scammed in a way. They think they can see scams and spot them, but they don’t necessarily get it right. These criminals are very clever.”

McGuinness of SCARS agrees: His network has seen an increase in the number of teenagers becoming victims.

“The truth is they’re scamming people of every age group, all the way down to as young as 13 years old,” he said.

“You can imagine [what would happen if] if you were a 14-year-old and you got a friend request from a woman who clearly looks like a porn star and in a matter of days is telling you it doesn’t matter that you’re 14, they love you.

“We believe there are at least 50,000 teenagers being victimised in romance scams this year but the number could be 10 times that. We just don’t know.”

Whitty’s work confirms another aspect of romance scams that victims often report themselves: that the realisation they have been scammed is not just like a bereavement – it actually is a bereavement.

“This is a grieving process. They go through the stages of denial, the bargaining… and then having to accept,” Whitty said.

“Often victims won’t delete pictures or emails from scammers because they find it very hard to let go, even though they know the person is not real – it becomes such a strong narrative in their head. That, I would argue, is because the internet provides us with a permanent record that people can read again and again, and the constant communication with the criminal makes it such a strong narrative it can be very hard to break.”

What can be done to stop the scammers is just as complex a question as how they operate.

Arrests and convictions in Nigeria and Ghana do take place, but they are not common. Internet cafés have been raided, leading scammers to shift to private apartments, typically on university campuses.

This is a borderless crime and can occur anywhere. Nigerian police can be swift to act when there is fraud against Nigerians at home, but they are reluctant to intervene when the victim is foreign – and after all, they may have been defrauded, but they still willingly gave the money to someone as a gift, which is not illegal.

McGuinness said until someone creates an Interpol for online fraud, the only way the UK police can usually help is to go to Nigeria or Ghana to secure an arrest: “When they do, it’s very effective, but it happens maybe once or twice a year.

“The majority of the scammers have nothing to fear because 90% of victims will never report it, so the result is the US, Canada, the EU, [and] Australia haven’t got a handle on this,” McGuinness said.

He said that scammers from western Africa are branching out into eastern Asia and infiltrating outsourcing businesses because they need a constant stream of pictures to steal and use. What better source than the customer service desk of a big customer-facing business?

McGuinness said Facebook and other sites are complicit in romance fraud by not intervening to stop scammers from creating fake profiles despite receiving a huge number of warnings and complaints from victims.

He calls for greater international cooperation, and hopes that lawsuits filed in the US against Facebook and others will result in real change.

But the solution might involve something a bit more old-fashioned: following the money. By making sure that the proceeds of fraud can’t flow back to the crime lords at the top of the gang structure – through better cross-border policing, seizing assets, and cracking down on corruption in money-transfer companies – you could in theory remove the incentive to scam people.

“You can look at the model of Al Capone in Chicago as the exact prototype of how you do this,” McGuinness said. “He was taken down for tax evasion. As a result the mob moved to Las Vegas and got involved in a different industry.

“So with one single action, using a change of perspective, you effectively solve the problem of prewar organised crime. It changed into something else and still it still existed, but it was far less destructive than what it was before.

“So the victims won’t get their money back but neither will the scammers benefit. The national governments will seize the money and theoretically use it for the benefit of all.”

As Whitty sees it, cybercrime is exploding at a rapid pace, bucking the trends for other kinds of crime. Violent crime is down, but romance frauds are up.

“As one criminal said to a Serious Organised Crime Agency officer once, there’s a scam out there for everyone.” ●

Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

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