Anna* was an Austrian woman who had recently divorced her husband and was encouraged by friends to give online dating a try. Within minutes of setting up her profile, she met Benjamin* who suggested they correspond via email instead of through the dating website. Benjamin told Anna he was an American soldier in Iraq, and after a series of emails, revealed that he had a teenage son, Caleb*, living in Ghana.
Anna had always desired children and developed a soft spot for Caleb, who soon began emailing her and sometimes even referred to her as his mother.
Eventually, Benjamin told Anna that Caleb’s birthday was coming up and suggested that she send him money. Anna sent several hundred euros. Caleb seemed grateful and Anna felt good. Soon, Benjamin informed Anna that Caleb had suffered an injury and needed money for hospital bills, which Anna sent.
After this episode, Anna was informed that Caleb had contracted cholera and needed money for treatment. After she had been paying for this alleged treatment for a few months, Anna decided to research cholera and its prevalence in Ghana. What she discovered was that though cholera was a serious problem in Ghana, there was a free treatment program in the country. Not only had she lost a lot of money, but she was also left to deal with the end of what she thought were real relationships with Benjamin and Caleb.**
Romance scams are an unfortunate part of the connections we have made more convenient online. Scammers use false identities and take their time wooing their victim and eventually gaining their trust before they begin to ask for money. They study their victims and know just what to say in order to get them to give them money. This alone can be quite devastating. There can also be issues of denial when the scammer cuts off ties and turns out not to be the suitor the victim has come to love.
When the victim comes to accept the situation, feelings of shame can keep her from disclosing the issue to family and friends or reporting the crime out of fear that she might be ridiculed. To be fair, it can be hard to track down these scammers and it is often difficult or impossible to recover the lost funds. However, many countries are becoming better equipped to deal with these situations and in some cases, recover the funds.
In the meantime, victims can work on processing their emotions and seek help from reputable organisations and support groups as well as reach out to their trusted family and friends.
Most people do not interact with each other online with malicious intents. When it comes to online dating, it is can be difficult to know when one is just being paranoid or whether there is indeed reason to be concerned. To minimize the risk of falling for such scams, several red flags to look out for are:
• Not having a profile photo. If they do have a photo, try searching for the image online and make sure that the image is not being used elsewhere.
• Quickly asking you to leave the dating service and correspond via other means.
• Inconsistencies between what they say and what they present on their profiles (geographical location, time zone, physical appearance, educational level, interests, family background, etc.)
• Declining to meet you or keeps scheduling dates and finding excuses to miss them.
• Trying to isolate you from your family and friends.
• Requests for your personal information (debit/credit cards, passwords, private photos, etc.)
• Asking you to send them money.
If you suspect you are the victim of a romance scam, stop all contact and block them from your social media accounts. Reach out for help. There is no need to feel ashamed. Many people have fallen prey to these scammers. It is not your fault and there are steps you can take to move forward with your life. You can find help from the following resources:
• Scam Survivors (https://scamsurvivors.com/)
• Scam Watch (www.scamwatch.gov.au/types-of-scams/dating-romance) (by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission)
The sites listed below offer help that is region-specific. You might have to find what help your country/region offers if it is not listed below. You may also check out whether your local/national police offer any support. You may feel that your complaint is not going to make a difference, but remember that more reported cases create demand for specific services to be offered.
Kenya: Directorate of Criminal Investigations (http://www.cid.go.ke/index.php/sections/specilizedunits/cyber-crime.html)
Nigeria: Police Special Fraud Unit (www.specialfraudunit.org.ng)
South Africa: Cybercrime.org.za (http://cybercrime.org.za/reporting)
Asia & Oceania
Australia: Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) (https://report.acorn.gov.au/)
Philippines: Anti-Cybercrime Group (http://pnpacg.ph/main/contacts) (by the Philippine National Police)
Canada: Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) (http://www.antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca/index-eng.htm)
USA: Internet Crime Complaint (IC3) at (www.ic3.gov/) (by the Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Europol (https://www.europol.europa.eu/report-a-crime/report-cybercrime-online) (you will be directed to the relevant website for your country if it is a European Union member)
* The names in this story have been made up and any resemblance to the individuals’ real names is coincidental.
** This story was adapted from Public Radio International’s January 12, 2017 “Victims of online romance scams, there’s a place you can go for help” broadcast.