Local and international law enforcement authorities yesterday nabbed a romance scam syndicate with links to internet scams, money laundering and wide-scale financial fraud.
It’s estimated that over 100 people lost more than R100 million, from 2011 to date, as a result of the scams perpetrated by the syndicate.
The group of eight suspects, aged between 33 and 52, were arrested in a large-scale operation in Cape Town led by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Secret Service, Interpol and the Hawks, among others.
A statement issued yesterday by the Hawks, SA’s directorate for priority crime investigation, says all suspects will be charged with a variety of financial crimes, including conspiracy to commit wire / mail fraud and money laundering.
The Hawks statement also notes the suspects in the investigation are alleged to have ties to a transnational organised crime syndicate originating in Nigeria.
The suspects allegedly preyed on victims, many of whom are said to be vulnerable widows or divorcees, who were led to believe they were in genuine romantic relationships but were scammed out of their hard-earned money, says Hawks spokesperson colonel Katlego Mogale.
“The suspects used social media websites and online dating websites to find and connect with their victims. Other modus operandi used by the suspects includes business e-mail compromise, where e-mail accounts are diverted in order to change banking details. They assumed fake names and trolled dating sites.
“Once they had ingratiated themselves with their victims, they allegedly concocted sob-stories about why they needed money − taxes to release an inheritance, essential overseas travel, crippling debt, etc – and then siphoned money from victims’ accounts to the amount of R100 million.”
According to Mogale, the suspects allegedly also targeted their victims’ neighbours, parents, friends and family. “The fraudsters intimidated and berated their victims, ruined their lives and then disappeared. We are confident this investigation will have a significant impact on this region and beyond.”
While dating or romance scams have always been cause for concern, they’ve increasingly gained prominence over the course of the pandemic.
A report compiled by research firm TechShielder found that during 2020, dating scams cost the world $218 million, which works out to be an average loss of $17 600 per victim.
In the case of South Africa, it was found that victims lost around $9.4 million (R134 million) in 2020.
TechShielder’s report analysed data to provide a landscape of where the biggest online dating fraudsters live, the countries with the highest number of victims, and how much money, on average, is lost to victims of catfishing.
The international report shows the Philippines had the highest number of dating scam cases, with over 1 300 incidents, responsible for $4 million in financial loss.
Ranking in second place is Nigeria – the West African country accounted for 1 129 reports, with a total loss of $16.8 million. This equals an average loss per victim of $14 892.
South Africa is ranked 18th on the global list of romance fraud, with 190 reported incidents.
Popular dating apps used worldwide, such as Tinder, Bumble or Zoosk, often become bait used to spread mobile malware, or retrieve personal data to later bombard the users with unwanted ads, or coerce them into spending their money on expensive paid subscriptions.
Likewise, social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have also become a platform where fraudsters attempt to catch unsuspecting consumers off guard.
These criminal attempts, however, have nothing to do with the legitimate apps, as the related files only use a name and sometimes copy the design of authentic dating services.