I was fully immersed in an investigation into romance fraud when a handsome U.S. soldier who called himself Oliver randomly sent me a direct message on Instagram.
When I responded to his “hi”, he asked me to download Google Hangouts “because it is more secure.”
I played along to try to get an inside look at the shadowy world of internet scammers. My game of cat(fish)- and-mouse with the man calling himself Oliver would have been entertaining, except for the fact that what he does is downright evil.
Oliver is part of an international network preying on vulnerable, lonely women.
“I know we don’t know each other but with time we will. I really wanna know you better hope we can be really close. I don’t talk to women. Am always focused on my job.”
And what a job he claims to have.
Oliver says he is a sergeant with the U.S. military, on a top secret, undercover mission in Afghanistan. Very quickly, Oliver starts calling me “Dearie” and “Baby” and sometimes even “Boo.”
His lengthy texts are surprisingly chaste, but he lavishes me with heart emojis and shares disjointed messages about his deployment in “the forests” of Afghanistan. Oliver doesn’t seem very interested in what I do, but he is desperate to hear my voice.
“I see us having a future together let’s just take this relationship to the next level. I believe when we start talking on the phone that will be so much better.”
Sadly, Oliver says, Kabul, Afghanistan has wonky internet, and because of the nature of his work, a video call is strictly forbidden. Oliver begs me to send money so we can use the satellite phone. The cost? 4 thousand dollars.
It’s a lot of work having a boyfriend who is on a top secret, undercover mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. I get busy with other things and don’t make it back on to Google Hangouts for about a month. When I log back on, I see this:
“Please talk to me”
“Lool. Na guy man you Dey follow dey waist him time since You no go just talk say you be work man. Maka still go Dey bomb Na ogor go finish you there”
“You are a scam”
“You are not real. You have been playing me all this while You’re a cat fish”
Hurt that I was ignoring him, and realizing that he wasn’t going to get any money out of me, my scammer was accusing me of being a fraud for leading him on.
“Catfish” is a word that didn’t even exist a decade ago, but is a term used to describe a person who creates a fake social media profile, with someone else’s pictures, to lure unsuspecting victims into handing over their hearts, and then their wallets.
In the course of researching this phenomenon, many women around me, colleagues and friends, have also been approached on Instagram by good looking, uniform wearing U.S. soldiers trying to strike up conversations.
It has become so widespread that the American military has issued a directive that soldiers make their social media accounts private, in an attempt to thwart scammers who steal their pictures to create fake online personas.
A W5 investigation (The Invisible Man) uncovered an organization called The Black Axe which has chapters in 26 countries around the world, including Canada. They are a sophisticated crime syndicate that specializes in romance fraud. They target dating websites, Facebook groups, instagram profiles.
Anyone who responds gets bombarded with loving messages and then some sort of a crisis that requires a small amount of money. Our investigation reveals that once money is sent, more sophisticated fraudsters are brought into the scam, followed by ever increasing demands for more money. By the time the victims wise up they are reeling from a double whammy of loss: one financial, the other emotional.
According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, romance scams are the number one type of fraud in Canada, accounting for about $20 million in reported losses every year. But, because of shame, fewer than one per cent ever report the crime. If you do the simple math, that means romance fraud is a criminal enterprise that reaps $2 billion a year in Canada from its victims.
When I confess to Oliver that I am a journalist working on a story about catfishers, it doesn’t faze him. Instead he smells a new opportunity to make money. Oliver offers to share his real story with me. The price? 900 dollars.
“Send me the money. I will tell you a lot more”
“Of what you want to know”
“I mean a lot”
“And even pictures”
I tell Oliver I won’t pay him any money. But that I will protect his identity if he agrees to an interview.
“You can’t help me but you want me to help you ?”
“Is this how humans are”
“You don’t care if I have anything to feed on”
“You are very selfish”
“The world is wicked”
And then, Sgt Oliver, the phoney soldier who called me baby and professed his undying love, blocked me.
As Oliver said: “The world is wicked”.
Watch W5’s latest investigation ‘Love and Money’ Saturday night at 7pm on CTV