The story threw a curveball when a woman contacted Toresen saying she too had been scammed by someone by the name of ‘Bernard Giuseppe.’
Toresen told Gower Giuseppe gave the second woman the exact same information she’d given Thea – he lived in Parnell and was working on a construction project in Singapore.
In the case of the second woman, Giuseppe asked her to send him $35,000 – she sent him $3000.
Upon further investigation of Giuseppe’s Facebook activity, Toresen concluded Thea and the second woman had both been caught up in a Nigerian romance scam.
A reverse Google image search of Giuseppe’s Facebook profile photo unveils another profile for an Italian man by the name of Raffaele Barberio.
Ultimately, Barberio had his identity stolen by “Giuseppe”.
“I’m so sad about this,” Thea told Gower.
“[The fact] someone can walk over your emotions and your life like you’re dirt… I don’t want anyone to go through it.
“I’m really so shocked – I can’t believe it.”
To give Thea closure once and for all “Giuseppe” didn’t exist, Gower contacted the real man behind the photo – Barberio.
After seeing and talking to Barberio over a video call, Thea came to terms with the fact “Giuseppe” wasn’t real.
“I’m so sorry they used your identity,” Thea told Barberio. “I’m sorry this happened and you were involved in it.”
Ironically, Barberio said he was the chairman of an association working to protect the privacy of Italians.
“This is the paradox,” Barberio said.
‘It’s just shocking’
Thea wasn’t the first person to fall for a Nigerian scam. The country has a global reputation for its industrial levels of online scamming.
Even before email was invented, there was the Nigerian prince scam, where victims received a fax from a so-called “prince” wanting to “share his wealth with them” – all they had to do was pay a “transfer fee”.
“People are still falling for that one,” said Bronwyn Groot, a fraud and scam consultant. “Once you start losing money, it’s really hard to stop because it’s only ever one more payment until you’re actually bled dry of all of your money.
“I don’t know how many people I have seen that have lost over $1 million – it’s just shocking.”
Who was running the scam?
To determine who the culprit was behind the global scam against Thea, Gower hounded the number “Giuseppe” used to call her and, eventually, received a response via voice message.
While the man wouldn’t name himself, he confirmed he was a Nigerian romance scammer.
“The truth is, in Africa here, this is a way to escape poverty for them,” the man said in the message. “They don’t want to go into armed robbery, don’t want to harm anyone physically. This is the only way we can do this and not feel the guilt too much because you don’t get to see them.”
But the scammer admitted the romantic side of the scam came with issues.
“You end up getting emotionally attached to these people but that’s part of the craft,” he said.
“There are victims that have lost more than $10,000. As for Thea, I can honestly say that I don’t feel the same level of compassion that I feel for some of my victims.”
Watch the full Patrick Gower: On Cyber Crime documentary on ThreeNow.