Earlier this year, 10 people located around the United States were arrested and charged in an organized money laundering scheme as they were attempting to wash the cash that they illegally obtained. What was strange about the scheme is how the money was obtained in the first place. It wasn’t through the trading or trafficking of illegal goods or drugs, but rather cash that was sent by unsuspecting women who thought they were building relationships with the scammers. The victims sent more than $1.1 million, including one woman who spent more than $546,000 in cash and goods on a man who she thought she was dating.
This type of thing happens more often than you might think. These types of schemes are known as romance scams, and while there is no shortage of scams online, few are more devastating. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Americans lost $143 million to romance scams in 2018, with the average victim getting scammed out of about $2,600. The Internet Crime Commission (IC3) of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation reported to receiving more than 15,000 reports of romance scams in 2016.
It’s not just the money that hurts in these types of schemes — typically the victim has formed an emotional connection with their scammer, believing them to be genuine and a potential life partner. That makes it all the more painful when the rug is pulled out from under them and the scammers make off with their income or savings.
Many of these schemes to swindle vulnerable people looking for love originate in Nigeria, where there is a bustling underground economy of scammers who set up profiles on online dating sites and sweet talk unsuspecting victims out of their savings. Social Catfish, an online dating investigation service, shared an actual playbook provided by a member of a Nigerian dating scam ring and provided insight into how these scammers operate and what to watch out for.
According to Social Catfish marketing manager Johnny Santiago explained that most romance scams originate on dating states like Match.com, but can also pop up on social networks like Facebook and Instagram or in more unexpected places. Romance scams have originated on other popular apps with communication tools like Words With Friends, for example. They rarely stay on these platforms for long, though. Santiago said, “These scammers then try to get their victims off dating and social media sites to messaging apps like WhatsApp or Google Hangouts, so their accounts won’t get deleted.”
The scammers almost always claim that their aim is to find love and to build a connection, sometimes telling their victims that finding one another was “destiny.” The truth, of course, could not be farther from this. Victims are likely not the first person that the scammer has contacted. They cast nets far and wide to find people who are most vulnerable and willing to believe their story. Often times, these scammers attempt to find women who are middle-aged or older, single or widowed and potentially in a vulnerable state. They then prey on the person’s insecurities and hope to find a genuine connection.
When carrying out these schemes, the scammers create rather elaborate stories to lure in potential victims. They create profiles with pictures of attractive people, typically stolen from other online profiles. They will often claim to be from the same area where their victim is located, but say that they are overseas work, school, religious obligations such as missionary work, military service or any number of other excuses.
Social Catfish warned that the scammers are “masterful storytellers,” and the playbook reveals how thorough that these scammers can be. There are dozens if not hundreds of examples of pre-crafted introductions, questions and responses meant to slowly trick a victim into falling for the scheme. The idea behind the scripts is to create the feeling of a whirlwind romance, the type of thing that you would see in a movie. The victim quickly starts to fall for the scammer as they display charm and wit, compassion and kindness. They say all of the right things, and seem to have their life together — often talking up their own education or financial security to make it seem as though they don’t need anything from their victim or at least have the resources to pay them back.
Santiago explained that the playbook is the result of a long-running operation that functions similar to a multi-level marketing or pyramid scheme. Mentors recruit workers, who are given access to the playbook, which has been fine-tuned time and time again after each scam to try to find approaches that consistently work. These newly recruited scammers make use of the playbook to try to take advantage of a victim. When successful, the mentor gets 10 percent of whatever their recruit manages to siphon off from the victim.
According to a former scammer that spoke to Social Catfish regarding these efforts, about one in 10 people willingly surrender money. It often starts with something relatively inexpensive as a means of testing the waters, but can quickly escalate to large sums of money. Scammers will claim that they need a loan to pay for travel to get back home, to pay for a phone or computer so they can keep in touch, cover a major medical bill or anything else that may play upon the empathy of their victim. Sometimes they will even use a new victim as a pawn to launder money from other victims, sending it to their account and asking for them to send it back in order to effectively clean the cash.
These scams can go on for weeks, months or even years — every time that a person provides the scammer with something that they ask for increasing the likelihood that the scammer will ask for something else. Once a person finally says no, the tone of the conversation likely will start to change. Scammers will become abusive and manipulative, attempting to guilt the victim into continuing their relationship. Eventually contact may stop, but scammers are likely to pull out all of the stops to try to get what they can while the remain connected to their victims.
While these scams are a surprisingly effective bit of social engineering, there are ways to ensure that you don’t fall victim to these schemes. Keep an eye out for warning signs, like a new connection expressing sudden and strong feelings toward you and inconsistent details in their story. Try a reverse image search on any images that they send you in order to determine if it was stolen from somewhere online. Never agree to send or receive money from people online that you don’t know; even if you aren’t surrendering your own savings to them, you may be an unwilling participant in a money laundering operation. If you fear that you have been scammed, contact the IC3 report the situation. There is no guarantee that you’ll get any money back and you certainly won’t get your time back, but you can potentially help to stop any future scams from occurring by providing information that can help shut down these operations.