Massive Flood of Romance Scams Defraud Older Victims

By Steve Baker

Introduction – A real case

Perhaps the best way to begin explaining how this fraud works and the effects it has is to begin with a recent criminal prosecution in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Illinois. Olyinka Sunmola is a Nigerian citizen who was running this fraud from South Africa.  He posted fake profiles on a variety of dating sites, including MySpace.com, Plenty of Fish, eHarmony.com, and Match.com. He used the real pictures of actual people, often claiming to be a serving officer in the U.S. armed forces. In these profiles he claimed to be widowed with a child, and to be a practicing Christian with a strong faith.

Sunmola met his victims on the dating sites and quickly moved them off the sites to communicate through Yahoo chat, and attempted to explain his slight accent by claiming he was originally born in Italy or Greece. He spent weeks or months developing relationships with his victims, often sending them gifts such as flowers or chocolates, and then asked for small sums of money for supposed minor emergencies in order to test the waters with them. The women were convinced they had found their true love and soul mate, and in most cases he assured them that they would be married in the near future. In fact, he regularly referred to one victim as “Mrs. Dyess.”  Dyess was the alias he was using with her.

The indictment charges that he defrauded at least thirty women in the U.S. Collectively they sent him tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, he used stolen credit cards to order laptops and iPads that he had shipped to his victims. They in turn shipped them to him in South Africa.  Sunmola even had a store selling electronics in South Africa, which operated illegally. Apparently all of his stock consisted of items he had stolen in one way or another. 

Sunmola also had one victim apply for a credit card, get cash advances on it, and then send money to him in South Africa through Western Union and MoneyGram.  He promised to pay her back, and at one point did pay off the credit card – with money he had obtained from an online bank account he had hacked into in California.  When the bank discovered the losses they went after this victim for collection.  She was left with $98,000 in debt and had to file for bankruptcy. 

Sunmola sent four traveler’s checks for $1000 each to another victim and again had her use MoneyGram and Western Union to send the money to him.  He claimed to be a military officer traveling on a confidential mission so that he could not cash them himself.   However, the traveler’s checks were stolen, and this victim was arrested, strip searched, and faced criminal charges.  Needless to say, she also lost her job as a manager at Wal-Mart.

With another victim (who was convinced they were soon to be married) he had her perform in a sexually explicit manner on Skype, which he secretly recorded.  When she refused to send more money (she had no more to send) he threatened to post the video on line.  When she could not come up with more money, he DID send the link to these pictures to her relatives, claiming he had four more such videos of her and would post them for the world to see unless the “highest bidder” would pay him not to.  Sunmola told this woman by phone that by the time he was finished with her she would want to kill herself.  He pledged to ruin her life if she did not continue to send him money.  She seriously considered suicide, but survived.

I listened to several of these women testify at trial. They were very brave to appear and take the stand.  None of these witnesses struck me as unusual and all seemed bright enough.  They had fallen in love, and were willing to do almost anything for the new love of their lives.  In fact, one woman bought a wedding dress.  Her friends threw her a bridal shower, and she quit her job.  She went to airport to meet her “fiancé.”  She waited at the airport to meet him on New Year’s Eve.  She waited there all night long.  He never appeared. 

It is hard to know the exact size of Sunmola’s enterprise. We do know that he obtained at least $1 million in laptops and other stolen electronic gear, and that he obtained at least $730,000 from his victims. 

After two days of a jury trial Sunmola changed his plea to guilty, presumably to keep the Court from hearing more details about his activities.  At a sentencing hearing on August 12, 2016, prosecutors recommended a sentence of 360 months (thirty years).  The Judge has not yet sentenced Sunmola.

This case was investigated by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Homeland Security Investigations of the Department of Homeland Security, and prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Illinois.

The South African police cooperated with the prosecutors.  They seized all four of Sunmola’s houses in South Africa (he had bought them all with cash) and the contents of his store.  After all these are liquidated they are going to send the proceeds back so that they can provide some restitution for the victims. 

Here is St Louis TV coverage of the trial:  http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/nigerian-man-admits-scamming-hundreds-of-women-online/article_d017f469-ea03-598c-acfd-7450288da260.html

DOJ press release: https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdil/pr/nigerian-scammer-convicted-line-romance-fraud

Article on the sentencing hearing:  http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/prosecutors-seek-long-prison-term-for-nigerian-who-stole-money/article_d07fa437-6bb6-5370-8721-69fa8a79ae75.html

How often does this fraud take place?

This is a massive area of fraud.  Many of us have heard about romance scams, and most would agree that it is a problem area.  However, in order to set priorities – and we all must – it is extremely helpful to know how widespread this activity really is.  For some types fraud one can extrapolate the size and scope of fraud from the number of complaints filed with law enforcement and the Better Business Bureau. The Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel database began separating these romance fraud complaints into a separate fraud category several years ago. In 2015 the FTC received 8715 complaints.  The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) unfortunately stopped contributing its complaints to Sentinel two or three years ago, but they reported an additional 12,509 complaints for the same period.  IC3 also reported aggregate losses to their victims at $204 million for 2015 alone.  According to the IC3, romance scams was the largest personal fraud crime based on losses reported in 2015. 

The trouble is, there are areas, such as this one, where victims may not even know they are fraud victims for some time, and then when they do realize that they have been defrauded they are so devastated that they never file a formal complaint, or do not know where to go to file a complaint that would become part of a national database.  We know from experience that there are some types of fraud in which victims blame themselves, are emotionally distraught, or are simply ashamed and are quite unlikely to go to law enforcement about their problems.

To my knowledge, the only organized effort to gauge the extent of this fraud has been undertaken in the UK.  Professor Monica Whitty undertook a phone survey of the UK, and in 2012 and concluded that since this type of fraud began (roughly 2008) that there had been 230,000 victims of this type of fraud just in the UK. She also found that 1.1 million people personally knew someone who had been a victim of an online romance fraud.  Given that the UK has one fifth the population of the U.S (and that there is no reason to think that the fraud levels are any lower here) that would suggest that there are more than 1 million romance fraud victims in the U.S

http://www.onlinepersonalswatch.com/files/online-romance-scam-a-serious-cybercrime.pdf

I have also talked to a noted cybersecurity expert, who I believe to be quite reliable, about how much online romance fraud takes place.  He estimated that at any given moment there could be 25,000 of these people on line, with the vast majority of them operating from Lagos, Nigeria.

This is not just a UK or U.S. problem.   Romance frauds operate all over the world.  As noted, the UK is convinced that they have a huge problem.  This has also been a priority for Australian law enforcement, where they are similarly convinced that this is a massive problem.   

What effect does this have on victims?

 The most obvious result of this fraud is the massive loss of money.  There are regular reports in the media of victims losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Often victims do not send only their own money, they also borrow from friends and family members to the maximum extent possible, max out their credit cards, or cash out IRA’s consisting of their retirement savings.

When the victims finally realize that they have been defrauded they are often emotionally devastated, not only due to the theft of money but to the betrayal of their ‘intimate’ ‘true love’ relationship.  Law enforcement officials in Australia have told me that they believe that there are more suicides in Australia due to romance frauds than there are murders.  As far as I know they have not been able to confirm this with actual research, but it is extremely troubling.

Of course people who lose all their money and do not kill themselves are still in desperate financial and emotional straits.  They are very likely to require public assistance once their money is gone.

Anatomy of a romance fraud. 

These frauds tend to involve several stages.  First, devising a profile and making contact with vulnerable victims.  Second, developing a trust relationship by isolating and grooming the victim, learning as much about the victim’s family, background, dreams (and assets) as possible.  Many of these tactics are similar to those used by predators of human trafficking and online child pornography.  Third, they move to getting the money.  During this process they may also use these victims as money mules to process money for other frauds.  Finally, many times the same people are revictimized after they learn they have been defrauded.  I address each in turn.

How do they contact victims?

The romance scammers operate on dating websites, but sometimes also use Facebook and other social media.  Obviously they want to aim their efforts at those most likely to be interested in the “relationships” they offer. 

There are hundreds of dating websites operating around the world.   Some are familiar because of their advertising efforts.  Match.com and Eharmony are two of the largest.  Some charge a monthly fee to take part in the site.  Others, such as PlentyofFish, are free sites.  There are also sites tailored to different religious or ethnic groups or for people with other commonalities, such as farmersonlydating.com or sites for LGBT.

Because the scammers are, after all, crooks, many of them use stolen credit cards to join sites and post fake profiles.  In this situation, they try to meet victims, interact with them, and move them to a different form of communication, such as email or text messaging.  Thus when the dating company notices that the credit card information is bogus, and removes the profile from the site, the fraudster can continue to stay in contact with the victim.

The larger dating sites try to keep the frauds off of their sites.  When they have bad credit cards submitted this affects their relationship with the credit card companies, and may increase the dating companies’ costs for credit card processing.   It is not clear that the free dating sites, which depend on advertising revenue, have a similar economic incentive to screen fraudulent profiles.

At the site the fraudster sets up a profile, complete with a picture and information about the supposed person.  As noted above, Sunmola often pretended to be active duty U.S. military.  The pictures are often simply copied from other locations on the internet.  Note that the pictures are saved and are of considerable importance to the victims in devising their mental image of the person they think are dealing with.

Of course the fraudsters can, and often do, also set up fake Facebook pages for their aliases.  This gives a patina of plausibility that helps the victim believe that they are dealing with the person represented in the profile.

Who do they pretend to be? 

Sunmola concentrated on women, often those recently widowed or divorced, and often over 50.  They often use the name and picture of a Colonel in the US Army stationed overseas.  The use of profiles claiming to be in the US military is used with victims all over the world.  I have seen it used with Canadian and Australian victims.  Needless to say, victims sometimes are able to locate the actual military members whose names are being used.  This is a real concern for the Pentagon.  Because their personnel are not themselves victims there is not a great deal the armed services can do in terms of taking legal action.   However, the US military has set up a very good Facebook page that attempts to warn victims about the use of the names of their personnel.

https://www.facebook.com/MilitaryRomances/

Sunmola’s profiles also regularly claimed to be a widowed father of a minor child.  Bringing the child into the equation seems designed to speak to the maternal in victims, as well as to establish that the scammer is a responsible parent and, thus, presumably a solid potential partner in life.  Having a supposed child can also provide the pretext for emergency requests for funds.

For male victims, the profiles tend to feature young women, such as teachers, or even missionaries, who need someone to help them.  Again, they steal photographs from other websites.

In all cases these profiles are carefully constructed to paint an image likely to be attractive to the reader.

The Grooming Stage

Once initial contact with a victim has been made, the “relationship” continues with a grooming phase, in which the fraudster learns about the victim’s life and builds trust.  Because the frauds are a business for the crooks, it is not surprising that they use the same profile language, pictures, and standard emails for a number of victims.

In fact, I have seen a set of standard form emails employed by one group of romance scammers that extend over a six month period, during which they learn more about the victim, profess their love, and explain why it is not possible to meet in person.

There are also situations where the victim receives a text message when they wake up every morning professing everlasting love. Some scammers even send flowers or other small gifts to their victims. They may text the victim 20 times a day, mirroring what everyone would want their ‘true love’ to share.  The scammers may also request small favors in return, which allows them to gauge whether the victim is likely to be susceptible to the inevitable time when there is an “emergency” requiring that the victim send a substantial sum of money.

These interactions build trust.  Remember, con man is short for confidence man, a person whose expertise is gaining your confidence.  We all trust other people every day.  If we go to a doctor people rarely check with a medical school to ensure the doctor in not an imposter.  Or if someone pulls up behind our car with flashing lights we of course presume that they are actual police and not an imposter.  We reasonably rely on quick indicia of reliability to make quick decisions – was he wearing a badge?  Did it look like a police car?   Of course those indicia can be employed by frauds to provide some background information that help foster belief.  And of course most of us think that only dumb people would fall for something like this, and that with use of their own common sense and skills they would be able to detect a fraud. The simple truth, however, is that the crooks are very skilled professionals, and it is often not easy to detect a fraud relying only on our own snap judgments.

Of course another reason that frauds work is that the fraudsters tell us what we want to believe.  

Again, Professor Whitty has studied this grooming behavior and written an excellent article on this process.

We know that the victims save and continually refer to these profile pictures and emails, sometimes rereading them months or years later.

The Sting

At some point the fraudsters will want money, usually for a medical emergency, a business problem, or to pay for a plane ticket to fly and meet in person.  If the victim complies, the scheme will continue on a variety of pretexts to keep the victim sending more money.  These can be quite elaborate stories, at time involving supposed third parties.  For example, some victims were told that funds necessary for the supposed businessman to continue operating had been sent from the UK to Ghana, but $3000 or more was needed to renew diplomatic seals on the funds so that it could be released.

There have been times when victims were encouraged to fly overseas to meet their love interest.  Professor Whitty found that some of these victims were kidnapped when they flew to Ghana to meet their soul mates.  They were shown money sent in their names, and then were locked in houses for several days.  Men with firearms appeared, had the victims sign forms attesting that their money was not for drugs, and then finally sent them home.

Follow on Fraud

Even after a victim has realized that they have been defrauded, the fraud does not necessarily end.  Victims may be contacted by someone impersonating a law enforcement agency or government agency that wants to help them recover their ‘lost’ funds.  Victims Professor Whitty interviewed reported getting emails supposedly from law enforcement in West Africa claiming that the scammer had been caught, and their money could be returned if they spend several thousand dollars for the fees needed to release and return the money.  

Even after the victim comes to learn that they have been defrauded it is not uncommon for the scammer to contact them again, admit that it was a scam, but claim that they actually did fall in love with the victim.  

Moreover, the victims often continue on dating sites looking for a relationship and may again become involved in an additional dating scam.  In addition, fraudsters sell lists of victims to other fraudsters, and thus victim’s names may well be sold to different frauds.

What do we know about victims and why they fall for this?

Perhaps the initial reaction of most people hearing about this fraud is to presume that the victims are simply stupid (because we believe we would not ourselves be taken).  I have also heard the view that this affects primarily late middle age women who are, by implication, desperate or depressed and therefore vulnerable.  In fact, the studies suggest that this is not necessarily the case.   It is an important question, since educational efforts in intervention and prevention must be crafted to the correct audience if they are to be effective.  Needless to say, knowing who we are dealing with and what their motivation is, is important for knowing how to help victims later on.

Again, Professor Whitty has done the work.  She asked if victims were men or women, rich or poor, straight or gay, older or younger.  Surprisingly, she found no correlation in any of these.  The one consistent point she found was that: Individuals higher on romantic beliefs were more likely to be victims of the scam. Participants with a higher tendency towards idealization of romantic partners were more at risk of being scammed.

Thus this type of fraud can and does affect men as well as women, younger as well as those older, and the gays and lesbians as well as heterosexuals.  The one thing victims all had in common was a very strong belief in true love and the existence of a soul mate.  And they believe that they have found that.

Note that this does not necessarily mean that different groups of consumers report at the same rate.

 How do Fraudsters get the money?

There is no point in running a fraud unless you can get the money. Western Union and MoneyGram are the payment method of choice.  Sunmola, for example received a great deal of money sent to him through Western Union in South Africa.  However, in some types of fraud the crooks may use bank to bank wire transfers.

Western Union is the largest money transfer company in the world, with agents in almost every country in the world.  Some scammers prefer to use MoneyGram, since every Wal-Mart in the U.S. offers MoneyGram services.

In order to send money through either company a consumer must take cash in person to the agent and complete a “send form” which includes the sender’s name and address.  (There are situations where you can use a credit card to send, but scammers rarely want victims to employ that form of payment since consumers can later dispute the charges).  These send forms also designate who is to receive the money and where.  

It is important to know that money does not have to be picked up at the address specified.  While both Western Union and MoneyGram have amended their practices somewhat in recent years, traditionally it was possible to pick up the money anywhere in the designated state or province or in any contiguous state.  Thus victims will not themselves know where the money was actually paid out.

Those receiving the money must complete a “receive form,” which requires the agent paying out the money to record the ID presented in the company’s database.  Thus both Western Union and MoneyGram should have records for all sends and receives available in their central computers.

There are some transactions that address the “lost wallet” scenario, where the receiver has no money or ID, and then are permitted to receive the money if they correctly answer a test question posed by the sender.  Needless to say, scammers know to use that situation to their advantage.

In Nigeria, one can only collect money from Western Union or MoneyGram at a bank where the receiver has a bank account.  Although this should control some of the fraud, in reality people can use fake ID’s to open bank accounts, and bank employees may themselves be either corrupt or complicit.  In Spain recipients had to produce a passport to receive money.  Agents were recording passports with pictures of people like Angela Merkel, Cameron Diaz and Sandra Bullock.  The Spanish National Police brought charges against nearly 200 Western Union agents.  No one actually came in to the agent location to pick up the money.  It was just collected by the agents and often simply re-sent to Nigeria.

http://www.dev.amlabc.com/aml-category/aml-news/western-union-staff-suspected-of-money-laundering/

Both MoneyGram and Western Union have fraud controls in place.  The typical remittance to a family member (the principal legal purpose for using these services) is only a couple hundred dollars.  Transactions of $1000 or more stand out and may be screened by the companies.  As a result, the scammers tend to have victims send more transfers for lesser individual sums.

In addition, both MoneyGram and Western Union have programs in place in which a victim’s name can be provided to their fraud departments, and these money transmitters can actually block the victim from sending (or receiving) additional funds.  It is a good program for law enforcement, Adult Protective Services and family members to be aware of as a resource, although it also brings forward issues of consent and adult victims’ right to choose, or autonomy.  Contact both companies’ fraud department webpages and contact number for more information on this possible option.  Be aware, the scammers may simply instruct the victim to use a fake name to get around the block.

The fraudsters can also attempt to use other payment methods, such as bank to bank wire transfers.  However, under the anti-money laundering laws, banks are on the lookout for these types of methods of using money, and must complete a currency transaction report, or CTR, for transfers over $10,000.  Moreover, there can be a paper trail.  However, this is an increasingly popular method, especially if the victim is also being used as a money mule.  In addition, the banks will be wiring the money to overseas banks, where stopping the funds may be more difficult.  Of course this method of transferring money is used at times, but it explains why the fraudsters prefer to instead use the money transfer companies.  If a victim is involved in this, report to the bank and IC3.gov immediately to request a stop on the account’s funds being moved, pending further bank/law enforcement investigation.

Romance scam victims used as mules for other fraud

So what does a romance fraud operator do with a victim who has no money to send or who has already sent their money?  These people are still a very valuable resource, because they can be used to launder money from other victims, by acting as money mules.  In the last couple of years law enforcement has come to recognize that there is a very large group of money mules that receive money, or goods purchased with stolen credit cards, and then send that out of the U.S.   Thus romance scam victims are aiding and abetting many other types of frauds.  The use of these “mules” makes it much harder for enforcers to recognize the scope of fraud or to identify the perpetrators and take action.

There is, after all, no reason to think that romance scammers limit their fraud activities to operating romance scams.  There are a wide variety of frauds that operate out of Nigeria and West Africa.  Most of us probably instantly think of the ubiquitous emails claiming that the consumer is the beneficiary of an inheritance from a dead dictator or the like.  But while the number of complaints about those letters (or emails) have been declining for several years,this is still a crime that steals life savings from elderly Americans every year.

Use of romance scam victims as mules is extremely common in Business Email Compromise scams, in which the fraudsters trick businesses into doing bank to bank wire transfers into an account opened by a mule/victim.  According to IC3 these BEC crimes produce the largest losses of any of the crimes they track.

There are a wide variety of other frauds that romance scammers also perpetrate. These include apartment/house rental scams, goods purchased with stolen credit cards, a variety of frauds that employ counterfeit checks, phishing scams gaining access to online bank accounts, bogus tax returns submitted in someone else’s name, and a number of others.  Some of these will be the subject of additional articles in the future.  Suffice it to say that fraud is rampant and most of them employ mules to disguise the fraud.

Romance scam victims are almost perfect vehicles for laundering the money for fraud.  Scammers build a trust relationship with their victims, and isolate them from other’s advice.  Thus there is little risk that the romance scam victim will pilfer the funds or goods they receive.  Moreover, unlike a co-conspirator or agent in the U.S., these victims are less likely to ask for pay to perform these services.  And even if law enforcement locate and confront the romance scam victim about their money laundering efforts, the victim does not know the true identity and location of the person they are really dealing with and thus cannot reveal that information to law enforcement.  In addition, the scammers realize that most local law enforcement is unlikely to follow up on a fraud complaint and follow the money to the mule/victim because the money has gone to somewhere in the U.S. that is out of their jurisdiction.

In addition, some romance scam victims have been used to transport drugs – and have been imprisoned.  In most cases is appears the senior was involved in a lottery or romance fraud, and was convinced by the scammer to travel with a suitcase or other item, which they did not know contained drugs.  The Internet Crime Complaint Center estimates that 144 elderly couriers have been conned into (unwittingly) carrying drugs overseas.  Over 30 such people have been incarcerated.  In February 2016 the Senate Aging Committee held hearings on precisely this subject.

http://www.aging.senate.gov/hearings/the-hearing-will-unveil-and-examine-a-new-troubling-scam-by-global-drug-traffickers-perpetrated-against-our-nations-seniors

And on July 29, 2016 there is a report that a 77 year old minister from Maine, who was a romance scam victim, was just released from prison in Spain.   He had originally been sentenced to six years in a Spanish prison for transporting drugs. http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/14/retired-pastor-back-in-maine-after-being-released-from-spanish-prison

Not all romance scam mules are innocent.  A woman in West Virginia was informed by federal agents that she was processing money for a fraud.  She did not stop, but simply moved to a different state.  She was successfully prosecuted.
https://www.scamwarners.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=96712

How can you tell if someone is dealing with a fraud?

Obviously the general rule must be that if you meet anyone on line, and for some reason cannot meet in person, there is a very high probability (nearing certainty) that it is a fraud.  Do not loan or give personal identifying and financial information or send money to someone in an online romance or a voice on the phone.

Engaging with the scammer to test their credibility is unlikely to work.  Because they do this every day, they know exactly how to respond, and pressing them may lead them to threaten to terminate the relationship and end the torrent of positive feedback they have been providing their victim. 

It is VERY difficult to dissuade a romance scam victim from continuing.  This type of intervention also takes a very thought out and sensitive process, with follow up victim services, counseling (by trained mental health providers), advocacy services, information on reporting, financial counseling, possible creditor intervention, access to support groups (both online and local).  Victims will also often need information on benefits, housing refinancing or assistance programs, and possibly bankruptcy information. 

Here are several tools that might help convince a victim that they are not dealing with the person they think they are.

Check the photograph: The initial profiles that the scammers post always have a photograph.  Victims keep these.  Since they have not met the person, they place great reliance on the pictures.  There are search engines that can fairly reliably search pictures.  Tin Eye is one: https://www.tineye.com/

Google image viewer is another.  https://www.google.com/intl/es419/insidesearch/features/images/searchbyimage.html  If the same picture appears with other names and in other places, this is the best possible method of detecting a fraudulent profile.  (I have heard, though, that sometimes the scammers invert, of flip, the picture, making it more difficult to search).

In addition, an internet search of an unusual twist of phrase from a profile or email may also turn up posts showing it was used in a different romance scam.  Because scammers are dealing with so many victims, they will inevitably use the same language for other victims.  You could even try searching for a paragraph of text. It is worth a try.

Use the State Department to transfer funds for an emergency Fraudsters often pretend to be a U.S. citizen working overseas or a member of the armed services.  The State Department often hears of such frauds.  They try to provide help to U.S. citizens suffering a real medical or other emergency.  On their website they note: “If you insist on sending money to someone who claims to be a U.S. citizen, consider sending money via the Department of State’s OCS Trust , which requires the recipient to show a photo ID to collect the money.”  Call the State Department's Office of Overseas Citizens Services at 1-888-407-4747. https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/emergencies/scams.html  

Check to see if there is a real business overseas:  If the fraudster claims to own or be working for a business overseas call the U.S. Embassy in the appropriate country and they will verify if this is a real business and provide some background on the company. 

Check to see if someone in the military really needs money.  Fraudsters impersonating the U.S. Military often claim that there is some reason that the military can’t provide needed funds – and that thus the victim needs to help them.  This website explains how this works, and provides examples of fake government forms that the fraudsters commonly use.

http://www.cid.army.mil/romancescam.html

There is also a company called Scamalytics based in the UK.  They compile a database of bogus pictures and the language employed by romance scammers. They then offer a scrubbing service to a variety of dating companies that they can use to help keep fake profiles off of the internet.  I do not know if they offer these services to individuals.

It is possible that if victims knew how the scam works, and how prevalent it is, they might recognize that they are involved in the same activity. Thus showing them warnings and other articles about romance scams could help.  At the end of this piece I provide links to some potential sources of information on this fraud.

What can dating companies do?

First and foremost, we would hope that the dating companies would use their absolute best efforts to keep the crooks off of their dating sites.  As noted above, at least the pay sites have some incentives to do so.  If nothing else, it would seem that they should be able to note the use of clients using IP addresses from Nigeria.

Of course they could also warn their customers that this is a problem.  The dating companies do have warnings about these, but in my experience they are difficult to locate on the dating websites and are somewhat generic.  Thus even those consumers who saw the warnings might not recognize that this is a common and serious risk.  I would like to see them do more.

The State Attorneys General have suggested to the dating companies that when they find a fake profile that they then directly contact everyone that has been in contact with that profileand warn them that there are serious risks that they have been in contact with a fraud and to exercise special care.  An association of dating companies in the UK has agreed to take these steps, and I have suggested it in speeches to the dating industry, but I do not know how many dating companies actually do this.

Finally, it would be good to see the dating companies take efforts to help consumers that have been defrauded.  At a minimum, they can take consumer complaints or direct victims to law enforcement.  Of course they could also fund efforts to help defrauded consumers.

Prosecutions

Those running these frauds deserve to be behind bars.  Unfortunately there have not been a large number of prosecutions.  Many law enforcement agencies tend to begin investigations based on a single victim, and may not recognize the true scope of the crime or that there are many other additional victims.  In addition, where the perpetrator is not in the U.S. many prosecutors are unwilling to undertake the considerable time and expense of locating and extraditing someone. 

I would suggest, however, that these problems are not as difficult as they would seem.  The EFCC in Nigeria has honest agents and has shown an affirmative desire to work with law enforcement agencies.  They have also themselves done some prosecutions.  For those who have an interest I would suggest that they talk through how to investigate and prosecute with another agency that has done one of these cases. 

Readers who are in law enforcement may note that for those conducting this fraud there have to be challenges to keeping the details straight when dealing with many victims at the same time and remembering their individual details.  This has to mean, of course, that the frauds have to have some system of records of files to keep tabs on these people, and whether those are stored on paper, in an email account, or on some other electronic form they have to exist.

Here are links to some of the other cases that have been done successfully.

http://www.wisbar.org/NewsPublications/Pages/General-Article.aspx?ArticleID=24885

http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/nigerian-man-used-montana-ag-s-photo-for-profile-in/article_68478175-ea53-5c81-90ee-d02ddf1ef471.html

EFCC arrest:  https://efccnigeria.org/efcc/index.php/news/715-undergraduate-in-efcc-net-over-90-000-romance-scam

International resources

Canadian Law Enforcement:  http://www.antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca/reportincident-signalerincident/index-eng.htm  If there is a connection to Canada the CAFC is a wonderful resource.  You can also call them toll free from the US at1-888-495-8501

In the UK:  http://www.actionfraud.police.uk/report_fraud

In Australia: https://www.accc.gov.au/consumers/complaints-problems/make-a-consumer-complaint

In Nigeria:  The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC): https://efccnigeria.org/efcc/.  The EFCC handles both public corruption and consumer fraud.

EFCC Hotlines: +234 9 9044752 or +234 9 9044753

The Netherlands:  http://www.fraudhelpdesk.org/tips-page/dating-fraud/  

Where to complain – and why

Many victims are very reluctant to file a complaint.   Filing a complaint, however, may help prevent someone else being defrauded because fraudsters each have many victims.  As noted above, Sunmola was dealing with at least 30 women.  Thus victims should report these crimes to their police department, IC3.gov, FTC.gov, their local FBI or Dept. Homeland Security,  as well as to any internet dating sites in which they ‘met’ their scammer.  And report to Western Union, MoneyGram, their banks and any other vulnerable financial accounts.

U.S. law enforcement

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)  https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/ or call 877-FTC-Help.  The FTC database of fraud complaints is available on line to over 3000 law enforcement agencies. Because it contains a great deal of personal information on fraud victims it is not available to the general public.  It can be searched fairly easily, and may well locate several victims defrauded by the same person.

Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).  https://www.ic3.gov/complaint/default.aspx This is in especially useful place to complain if a Business email compromise is involved.  IC3 data is generally available only to the FBI and not to other law enforcement agencies.

Otherplaces to complain in the U.S.

The Better Business Bureau.  www.Bbb.org

National Consumers League:  www.fraud.org

Senate Subcommittee on Aging Fraud hotline:  http://www.aging.senate.gov/press-releases/senate-aging-committee-launches-new-anti-fraud-hotline-enhanced-website-to-assist-seniors 1-855-303-9470

Western Union 1-800-448-1492; https://www.westernunion.com/us/en/file-complaint.html

MoneyGram   1-800-926-9400; http://global.moneygram.com/nl/en/how-to-report-a-problem

Victims who have shared documents such as passports, social security numbers or other identifying information should take the precautions and safeguards used for victims of identity theft.  Identity Theft Resource Centerwww.idtheftcenter.org

Help for victims

Romance scam victims often suffer emotional pain that is at least as serious as the loss of money.  As noted above, this can and does result in suicides.  Often the fraudster has worked hard to isolate the victim from their family and friends – their normal support networks.  A friend who works with these victims says that the trauma is very similar to that suffered by victims of domestic abuse. 

Unfortunately there is no single place in the U.S. where victims can go for counseling or similar help, and many doctors, counselors and other care givers are not familiar with romance frauds or how to address them.

If doctors encounter victims they can authorize counseling. If victims are seniors they may be able to obtain help through Adult Protective Services, which has offices in every state and many counties.  Find your local office at www.elderjustice.gov.

www.Scamsurvivors.com  They deal with all sorts of fraud victims, but necessarily try to offer help to romance scam victims.  

Romancescams.org. This group asserts that it provides counseling and support groups for victims

Other resources

Studies by Professor Whitty:

 http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/media/people/monica-hitty/Whitty_romance_scam_report.pdf

http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/media/people/monica-whitty/online-dating-romance-scam-project

AARP:  https://action.aarp.org/site/SPageNavigator/FWN_Romance_Scams.html?intcmp=AE-SEARCH-AARPSUGG-stop-romance-scams

The Australian version of 60 minutes aired a very good piece on romance scams.  See:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mzl8h0J-DUY

This is a longer piece on romance fraud that ran in Australia.  It is longer, at 48 minutes, but is really excellent:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qz_2NpmOAYs&feature=em-upload_owner

A sampling of other fairly recent pieces in the news media:

http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/nigerian-man-used-montana-ag-s-photo-for-profile-in/article_68478175-ea53-5c81-90ee-d02ddf1ef471.html

http://m.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/14442179._She_had_nothing_left__not_even_a_slice_of_bread____County_Durham_pensioner_loses_life_savings_in_romance_scam/

http://www.actionnewsjax.com/news/local/online-dating-scams-costing-floridians-millions/355236307

http://www.wisbar.org/NewsPublications/Pages/General-Article.aspx?ArticleID=24885

http://www.ccenterdispatch.com/news/state/article_c396ec24-f6d2-5632-a8da-7f63f62b701a.html

http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Facebook-courtship-of-Woodlands-woman-ends-in-8380562.php

In one case several women dealt with a man in the U.S. they met online.  They pulled out their savings, went to join him, and then were never seen again.   http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_MISSING_WOMEN?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2016-06-25-14-20-40

Steve Baker
Sbaker109@comcast.net
August 24, 2016

Steve recently retired from the Federal Trade Commission as Director of the FTC’s Midwest Region where he worked on consumer fraud matters for over 30 years.