Mary, a 66-year-old Australian woman, had a two-year relationship with a British man, someone she had bonded with over text messages, photos and videos. Except, the relationship wasn’t real, and the man whose images she had fallen in love with was an American: Andre Moreau from Baton Rouge.
His image had been used by scammers, who took his photos and voice to create realistic videos to send to Mary. This wasn’t the first time Moreau’s likeness has been used.
“I have been contacted almost daily for the last year and a half,” said Moreau, a former anchor for WLPB and WAFB. “Hundreds of people are using my photos. They use my bio; all of their pictures are of my family.”
Scammers can manipulate images and voice clips to create deepfakes, which can seem extremely realistic. The technology isn’t new, but is getting more and more advanced due to artificial intelligence.
Mary found out her romance wasn’t real when the person she was messaging with sent a video saying he would be back in Australia soon and hoped they could see each other, after two years of never meeting in person. But he didn’t show up at the airport and said he had been arrested for owing someone money. Mary transferred him the funds.
“You want to believe your heart, and so I went down there [to the airport] and I waited there for probably about two hours,” Mary told an Australian news outlet. “I cried all the way home.”
Her friend raised the alarm, and a Google reverse image search showed the video was of Andre Moreau.
Mary is just one of tens of thousands of people duped by romance scams worldwide. In the U.S., more than 19,000 people fell victim to romance schemes in 2022, according to data from the FBI. Individuals in Louisiana lost more than $2 million in 2022 to these types of scams.
In fact, confidence fraud/romance scams resulted in the highest amount of financial losses when compared to all other internet-facilitated crimes.
Moreau first learned his images were being used in scams about three years ago, when a woman from Ukraine kept insisting she talk with him.
“I Googled ‘Andre Moreau romance scams’ and page after page of cases came up,” he said. “Some had been turned over to the FBI, to police.”
He began to get calls from people who had found his number. One woman from Kentucky said she had displayed his photo on her piano for six months.
“It’s totally out of control,” Moreau said.
How it works
While there are hundreds of types of romance scams, fraudsters generally use fake images to get an unsuspecting person to fall in love with them, then eventually ask for money. Scammers are typically based outside of the U.S. “Yahoo boys” has become a shorthand term to describe young men in Nigeria who scam foreign women, derived from the email service Yahoo, which became popular in Nigeria in the 2000s. They create intimacy and inside jokes and try to build trust.
“They groom them, talk to them for months, and eventually say something like, ‘I’m stuck on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico, can you send me $25,000?’ And they do,” Moreau said.
He has worked over the past three years to raise awareness about the issue. Moreau said he is most concerned about the women being hurt emotionally and financially by the scams, but of course, it is annoying for him as well.
“Just when you think, ‘Oh maybe it’s calming down, it’s daily.’ It’s gone from something I thought was not that big of a deal, to really becoming something that’s so irritating,” he said.
Make sure it doesn’t happen to you
So, how rare is Moreau’s situation, and is there anything you can do to avoid falling prey to a deepfake scam?
“Unfortunately this is just like one of a million,” said Golden Richard, professor of computer science and engineering and director of the LSU Cyber Center. “The issue with AI is while there are some research tools for detecting deepfakes, and if you do a really deep analysis you can tell it’s been altered, the average person is in dire straits in terms of telling these things apart.”
And it’s only getting worse.
“There are websites now that will generate porn images and porn videos based on input images. I don’t really think there’s any hope of someone seeing an image without some surrounding context and being able to tell it’s not real,” he said.
Just a few years ago, creating realistic deepfakes required several images of a person from multiple angles. But now, realistic deepfakes can be created with just one image, Richard said. And deepfake voices are becoming more common. If you say anything online, that audio can be repurposed.
“The whole situation is bad. We’re in a time now where cyberattacks almost seem like magic. Even very technical people can’t figure it out. I’m not suggesting everyone go hide in a cave, but we’re almost there,” Richard said.
At this point, the only way to tell if someone is real is to see them in person, or at least via a live video call. AI doesn’t work in real-time, so Richard suggests setting up a FaceTime or Zoom call with online dating matches if you can’t meet in real life.
“It’s really boiling down to that with any interaction that involves cyber data, you need to see the person and verify they’re not wearing a rubber mask,” he said.
The FBI recommends people slow down potential relationships and ask a lot of questions, as well as research online and see if the person’s photo or profile has been used elsewhere.
“Be wary of anyone who always seems to have an excuse as to why they can’t meet you face to face. Never send money to anyone with whom you’ve only communicated online or by phone,” a spokesperson for the FBI said.
As far as stopping your image from being used in a scam, there’s not much you can do. If your photo is online, on social media or elsewhere, it’s up for grabs. The FBI said the only way to avoid having your photo used to scam others is to not post it online.
If you’re someone like Moreau, a public figure in Baton Rouge whose images and voice are widely available, but you’re not famous enough to be immediately recognized, the chances your image will be used in multiple scams is likely higher.
“It’s usually someone visually appealing, but not so obviously a celebrity. I don’t think Tom Cruise would be a good choice,” Richard said.
If you are a victim of a scam, the FBI said it is important to report the transfer of funds to your financial institution and file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, as well as contact your local FBI field office or other law enforcement agency.
“The FBI does realize that reporting this type of crime can be embarrassing because this type of scam is intensely personal. However, the only way we can bring these online impostors to justice is by knowing the crime occurred,” a spokesperson said.
Unfortunately, even reported scams have a low chance of bringing justice to victims.
“A lot of this is happening in places where there’s no possibility of extradition. It would require an extraordinary amount of judicial power to make something happen,” Richard said.
And without consequences, it’s worth it for scammers, who are usually based outside the U.S., often in situations where economic disparity is extreme and it’s worth it to play the long game to get a few thousand dollars.
“It’s hopeless in terms of recourse and for detection in the first place,” Richard said. “Just meet people in person.”
While it can seem obvious to some, not everyone is tech-savvy, and as AI improves scams can only target more people.
“If your frame of mind is to find love and you’re lonely, there’s all sorts of things you might do. I can’t think of anything more cruel,” Moreau said.