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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 Match.com, 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 bo