We’ve heard it before. Just another routine romance scam. You shake your head and wonder why people send money to strangers they meet online in what’s obviously a set-up.
It’s easy to dismiss an email asking for your bank details or one telling you that you’ve won the lottery. Romance scams are different. The victim is already invested in a relationship by the time the first request for money comes.
At the beginning it’s always for an amount small enough to make them feel like a heel for refusing, especially if they’re a decent person, and they’re dealing with someone they’ve developed feelings for over a period of weeks or months.
Romance scammers are patient and willing to put in the time and effort they think is needed for the big pay-off. The lengths they are willing to go to even when confronted with their own lies, are staggering, as Richard (not his real name) has discovered in the weeks since he first contacted the Sunday Mail for help. However, although scammers may be cunning, it does not mean they are very bright, or thorough.
Richard, 60, was lucky, financially at least, having transferred only $1,620 – though still a painful amount when you don’t have it to spare – in two payments to a MoneyGram address in northern Cyprus in June, a few weeks after he began chatting online with a woman calling herself Caroline Wright.
If he had not become suspicious and contacted this newspaper when he did, he would have found himself confronted with a dilemma that could have cost him $9,500 he could ill afford, this time to get Carol, as she called herself, “out of jail” in the north. The emotional, and physical toll has been more costly due to the endless stress the scammers have put him under, knowing full well his financial and medical situation.
Of course, he could have shut it down at any time based on his suspicions but it’s often not that easy, and as long as hope exists that the person might in fact be real or in trouble, people hang on.
“I couldn’t shake it off without really knowing,” Richard says.
With hardly any knowledge of the political situation in Cyprus at that point, and no real proof that Carol was not who she said she was, Richard could not easily spot that it was impossible for someone to be arrested in Larnaca, as she said she had, and put in a cell in north Nicosia for not “paying her taxes”.
The scammers – there were more than one – did not do their homework either, and were depending on the fact that a 60-year-old man on the other side of the world would just buy their story. He didn’t, but wanted to find the evidence to confront them with. What he found out is that they don’t let the evidence deter them one whit.
“I kinda had a feeling it was a scam after about three weeks in but for some reason I allowed myself to be drawn in more and more. Then after the $1,500 transfer it was obvious something was wrong with this picture,” he says.
Carol had been refusing to send a scan of her passport on the grounds that her employers had taken it. She falsely claimed she was redecorating the Elexsus Hotel in Kyrenia, which was an easily provable lie based on fake photos she snapped with her phone from a screen on Google images. Carol’s employer had then inexplicably paid $4,500 for a business-class ticket to take her back to the US but ‘unfortunately’ as she was about to board a plane at Ercan – even though her fake ticket screenshot said Larnaca – she was ‘arrested’ on August 23.
Enter Coleman Draxler, a person of indeterminate origin with a name out of a Mills and Boon novel. He worked for the ‘TRNC government’ and happened to befriend Carol after her arrest. He suddenly became the only person who could buy her out with the $9,500 Richard was to send, conveniently just under the $10,000 money-laundering radar. It didn’t take long for him to turn nasty when Richard said he had asked a journalist to help and that this journalist would meet him at any Nicosia crossing point to hand over the money Richard had no intention of sending.
Coleman then sent a farcical document with the heading of the ‘TRNC interior ministry’, signed by the ‘TRNC port authority’ boss, bearing a red stamp that said ‘Istanbul’ and then – unbelievably – citing work in a Larnaca hotel for the taxes owed. By then, Turkish Cypriot police had confirmed to the Sunday Mail’s correspondent in the north that there had been no arrest and, of course, the document was fake.
Carol was not ‘due in court’ until Tuesday September 5 due to the Bayram holiday weekend. Coleman sent Richard a “better send the money fast” text, and went ballistic when Richard falsely told him the entire Cypriot media would show up at court and Carol’s photo would be everywhere and a lot of questions would be asked. Enter ‘Jillian Judd’, Carol’s so-called half-sister who ‘lives in Florida’ to pile on the guilt over contacting a journalist and leaving her “sis” to rot in jail by not coughing up the moolah.
On September 5, Carol was miraculously and mysteriously out of jail and emailed Richard to let him know. Oddly enough she apparently forgot to tell Coleman, who had been holding on to her phone while she was incarcerated. He texted later, still demanding the money to get her out. Confronted with the fake document and Coleman’s odd behaviour, predictably Coleman became the fall guy and Carol the innocent victim. She later asked Richard for $5,000 to finally get to the US but apparently forgot she had a fully-refundable, fully-changeable business-class ticket from before.
Despite the undeniable fun of wasting the scammers’ time, it was really time to shut this farce down but there were still real people behind all of this: Richard, the three scammers who might well be pulling the same stunt with other victims, the woman in the stolen photos presented as Carol, and the mysterious person who had picked up Richard’s original payment from a MoneyGram office in the north.
It was time to follow the money instead of chasing fake aliases.
Carol had told Richard to send his initial payments to a ‘female friend’ of hers with an African name with the initials PMB (we cannot print the full name). An initial Google search for this person weeks ago had turned up nothing.
Not being a techie, I realised it was time to Google ‘how to find info on Google that doesn’t show up in Google search’. This turned up what’s known as the ‘invisible web’, and a site called Pipl which churned out dozens of people with the same name, once the middle initial was dropped.
Trawling through around 30 or 40 pages of Facebook profiles of people named PB finally turned up one with a Cyprus connection. The middle name beginning with M that had been given to Richard turned out to be a red herring but PB did have a different middle name also beginning with M.
PMB’s Facebook said she was an African student at a university in the north. As it turned out the university postcode matched the original MoneyGram address that Richard sent money to Carol’s ‘friend’ PMB. When Richard sent PMB’s photos to Carol, confirmed by the Sunday Mail as having been taken on the campus grounds, her response was a predictable denial that it was not her friend. It was also a little creepy. “Who is this black girl? Where did you get those photos honey?”
Richard, convinced by now that Carol and PMB were the same person, then asked ‘Carol’ if her particular friend PMB was Greek or Turkish. Sadly for Carol, she chose wrongly, saying “Greek”, having failed to work out the odds of two people with the same African name living in the same small town in the north of Cyprus.
Richard let it go to see what would happen next, which was that Carol somehow found the money for a ticket and was finally flying out to him last Monday night.
But wait. Scammers never meet their victims. Something had to go wrong.
To set the scene, cue Florida-based sister and damage-controller Jillian who suddenly emailed Richard in the middle of Hurricane Irma, which she failed to mention at all, to say “Mom has fallen down Richard. Should I call 911 or give her some pain killers?”, like you do. Richard had expected them to be killed off in the hurricane but somehow, Mom is now in hospital in New York and Carol must change her flight to go there instead. “They still think they have me,” says Richard.
There’s more. The last piece of the puzzle. Who was the woman in the stolen photos presented as Carol? All of the photos had been stripped of metadata and there was no way to trace her. As a last-ditch attempt to identify her, Richard sent on a few more. Fortunately, the scammers had dropped the ball on stripping the metadata from one of them, so the search easily turned up an Instagram photo of a woman from Alabama. The Sunday Mail immediately informed her via social media that her identity had been stolen and was being used in a scam, perhaps even more than one.
So was this our Carol’s Waterloo? Nope. The girl has nerves of steel and a heart of stone. Confronted with the links to the real person in the photos, her response was to confess to stealing them because she was ashamed and too insecure to show Richard her real self. Photos of the ‘new Carol’ that arrived shortly after, show a woman no less attractive than the ‘old Carol’ and so, just like a horror movie where the hand pushes up out of the grave during the credits, PMB lives to scam another day, and emails that could have come right out of The Shining “Hey Richard. How was your night honey?” keep on rolling as if none of the evidence she was hit with mattered at all.