With the recent and mounting revelations of Russia creating fake profiles to influence U.S. elections, of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica misusing personal data, of celebrities buying phony Twitter followers to pump up their reputations, and other troubling online behavior, I want to tell about another social media scam, for which I am, somehow, one of the front men.
A few years ago, I received a Facebook message from a stranger. It began, “The last month I was having a kind of a flattering relationship with you. It’s so amazing this story that I don’t know if my English is enough for telling you all the details…” The message came from the profile of a journalist prominent in her southern European country. I couldn’t figure what the heck she was talking about.
As I soon came to understand, and the woman understood, sort of, her relationship was not with me. It was with a con artist, or con operation, that harvested my photos from social media and other websites and used them in “catfish” scams: romancing women online and, eventually, using the affection and trust built up, plus a ruse or two, to ask them for money.
Soon after the first message, I heard from more women. I’ve received dozens of messages from all over the world — a Dutch pharmacist, a Bolivian teacher, a Singaporean administrative assistant — letting me know they had been engaged in Internet romances with people who used my pictures, and occasionally even used my name, on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ (whose uses that?), various dating sites, and god knows where else.
Just a few weeks ago, at a funeral, two people told me they had recently seen my picture used in online dating app profiles, one in the U.S. and one in Europe.
These cons are on the rise. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) says that what they call “romance scams” now produce the largest share of financial losses of all online crimes. In 2016, the FBI received almost 15,000 romance scam complaints, with total reported losses exceeding $219 million, up from $87 million in 2014. Donna Gregory, the IC3’s unit chief, has estimated that the average U.S. victim loses over $100,000.
The Federal Trade Commission received more than 11,000 romance scam complaints in 2016, again more than twice what had been received two years earlier.
About 80 percent of the victims are women.
I couldn’t imagine why these crooks were using my pictures. You can see men much better looking than me simply by doing a Google image search for the word “man.”
“They make themselves out to be average-looking people,” FBI Special Agent Christine Beining has helpfully explained about the scammers’ selection of profile pictures. “They are generally not trying to build themselves up too high.”
Eventually, as the relationships deepen, the scammers speak of an urgent, short-term need for cash — for a medical emergency, an expensive divorce, or a business opportunity that would allow the already-rich man to get even richer and allow the couple to be together in paradise for the rest of their lives. Most of the women who contacted me said they had not given the scammers any money, but some said they had — sometimes, they admitted, thousands of dollars.
Worse, the women who reach this average-looking correspondent are the resourceful ones: people who notice my real name on a name tag I’m wearing in a photo, or who find me via image search. The less sophisticated victims likely fare even worse, and who knows how many there are.
The women’s stories are heartbreaking. They’re hurt, ashamed, stunned. Sometimes they have trouble accepting that the person they were engaging with isn’t real, or isn’t me.
The Dutch pharmacist wrote me long messages:
Well David, I received a lot of pictures from you… I’ve been chatting a lot with this man, Because I was flattered about what he wrote me. He told me I was looking like an angel and at the beginning I was a little bit scared about what was happening but after one week of chats I was believing that he (or you) was speaking the truth. He wanted to come to my country and invited me to come to New York where you live (but now I understand you don’t?). I have about 3000 chats form him…
Normally I’m not that stupid but because of all the pictures I’ve received during the last weeks it felt like a dream (but too good to be true….)… I am a woman living with my son of 6 years, so I think he’s looking for that kind of vulnerable women, as you understand.
… Because of the pictures I really liked to meet you but now I have to wake up… .. He asked me for money…
The scammers go to great lengths to sell their fake identities. Sometimes they set up parallel profiles or even entire websites to back up their claims. One guy left his new lady a voicemail where he sang a heartfelt rendition of Aerosmith’s “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” in an accent that seemed to come from Africa, although his name — Tim Vasillios — sounded Greek. Tim was CEO of his own oil company.
Tim was also watching me. When I posted a screenshot of his phony company website on my Facebook page, Tim removed my picture from the site within ten minutes.
Another time, the scammer was so contemptuous of his victims that he called himself James Blunt.
The FBI says that most of these scams are centered in Nigeria and Ghana, but who knows where my scammer is? It could be a franchise — boiler rooms full of people in Russia, or the Philippines, or that guy at home in New Jersey — with a package of pics and profile information and romancing scripts ready to go.
Alec Couros, a professor of Information and Communication Technologies at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, helped fill me in on how these scams operate. Couros, who first got interested in the subject more than a decade ago when romance scammers started using his social media pictures, has spent time communicating with scammers, as well as victims. Most of the crooks he encounters are from Nigeria and Ghana. Some are independent operators, but others are part of organized crime-like structures — working for a boss, perhaps one who can pay off the local police unit charged with investigating these scams. A scammer may be sitting in a room alongside others pursuing the same con. With so many potential victims to go around, they are happy to share online well-honed scripts aimed at luring in victims, or “mugu” — fools, they call them.
Once the scammer makes contact with the target, he will try to lure her off the social media or dating site where they met — where his profile is always in danger of being shut down or called out — and onto a one-to-one platform like WhatsApp or Google hangouts. He phones the victim every day. He urges her not to tell others about their secret love.
Couros, who has extensive information for romance scam victims on his website, worries that the scams could get worse, because, as a global online culture, “we haven’t come close to reaching peak stupidity.” He sees a strong connection between the vulnerable gullibility required to fall for a catfish scam and susceptibility to politically-motivated fake news; in each setting, he says, there is a “lack of a critical mind-set.” While some of the victims I’ve encountered came from upscale backgrounds, Couros says that many of the victims are low-income, religious people, often in developing countries, or else poor regions of wealthier countries, such as the American South.
An Indonesian victim had written me, “thats why i want to tell u sir, some one have your picture n his name james blunt, do u know him ?” When she found out that the pictures were of me, she confronted this James Blunt, and he replied that David Halperin was his twin brother.
When I looked at this woman’s Facebook profile, she had my photo as her cover picture — me, whom she believed was her boyfriend, spread on a banner across the top of her page.
Another woman similarly confronted her scammer, who responded that he used the name David Halperin while he was married, but now he was divorced and fully renamed.
The Bolivian teacher wrote me:
— I received a friend request from a person named Michael Sagal last year, I wrote messages every day… I started to doubt I said that he was not the one of the photos I denied it, he sent me some photos he said he had two daughters….
Do not know how I feel, it hurt to know that everything was a lie.
So sorry Sir…
I’m just for you, sir, an unknown woman whom you cheated, using your profile pictures, actually behind this was a criminal. My God, how can there be so much evil in people?
Of course I met you for photos some time ago when your name was Michael Sagal.
I want to tell you that my eyes fill with tears when I think that … yes … apologize for disturbing
Perhaps you will never have time to read the messages I sent you, I work in a school. I am a teacher.
This woman sent me increasingly desperate messages, trying to engage me. I messaged her expressing sympathy, urged her to move on, and then blocked her. She quickly set up a new profile with her own fake name, with a sad picture of herself in heavy makeup and a skimpy outfit, and started pursuing me again.
The scam moves so far and wide that one of my closest work colleagues showed me a post on the Facebook page of a friend of hers from Buffalo, New York. “Got this friend request,” she wrote. “Anyone know him?” I did. Because Michael Sagal’s profile picture was of me, at home on my couch.
There’s also been Dave Walt.
Alderic Billy, 57, from Nigeria (a profile active until a few weeks ago).
Delroy, also 57, still in business on Badoo (“I’m here to date with girls, older than 49”) at this writing:
And Terri Gilbert, 51, from the UK, on a Muslim matchmaking site.
A woman who was recently romanced by Terri wrote:
Hi David, I got to know a guy by the name of Terri Gilbert in November from an online dating website. I want to inform you that he is using your picture as his profile picture at the online dating website….
Sad to say that he managed to scam me of USD8000 last week….
It’s just not right for people to be so cruel to do this.
Then there’s Joseph A. Smit.
Mr. Smit ran a different, but equally ugly scam. With profiles on Google+ and a veterans website, he used my pictures and the bogus promise of VA grants to steal $15,000 from an older disabled veteran in Minnesota. With the help of the Minnesota attorney general’s office, this gentlemen and I got those profiles taken down. The veterans’ site was responsive and apologetic, while Google was slow and resistant.
The romance scammers are the lowest of the low, breaking people’s hearts in the process of humiliating and robbing them.
“There’s a special room in hell for these people,” says William Kresse, assistant professor of accounting at Chicago’s Governors State University and operator of the Professor Fraud consumer information website. “To toy with people like that is really evil.”
Kresse explained why he thinks people are so easily fooled by romance scams. “We refuse to see what’s in front of us because we have such a strong need to be loved,” he said. The Internet and social media may have helped bring us all together, “but we still are awfully alone.”
— this guy at malaysia now… he says he work at the ship at kuala terenggan.
— He doesn’t. He works at trying to trick people out of money.
— why they always using your picture sir?
Maybe I shouldn’t have kept my Facebook and other profiles open. But now it’s way past too late. The scammers have my pictures, from public events and private settings, me speaking at a podium or playing with various children. Pictures of me with my girlfriend aren’t used, to bolster my image as a lonely guy looking for love.
What are the lessons?
You could consider making your own social media profiles private, as many already do, and refuse all friend requests from strangers. Unfortunately, that won’t stop the scammers from fleecing people using my pictures, or pictures of Alec Couros, or other random people whose photos they already have. Unless fashions change dramatically, those photos could work for centuries. But keeping your own pictures away from con artists could prevent you from getting sucker punched by an angry victim who spied you at a market in Cartagena.
Law enforcement can try to crack down, and folks should pressure them to do so. Sometimes they make arrests and get convictions.
There could be challenges in making criminal cases, though. Sure, these guys are con artists. But, if you think about it, many romantic relationships involve some degree of deception. If you start dating someone and lie about your age, your net worth, or exactly how much you love them, and they buy you a jacket, is that a romance scam? Defense lawyers for catfish scammers would certainly be ready to make these kinds of arguments at trial.
But once the scammer requests cash for a manufactured emergency, that’s when the con enters Nigerian Prince larceny and fraud territory, and criminal culpability is clearer. Also, in some cases these scams involve getting the victim to provide compromising pictures or videos, and then a blackmail threat. That’s also definitely a crime.
It’s a big world out there, however, with limited law enforcement resources, an endless number of crooks, and difficulties in getting access to and jurisdiction over offenders operating overseas.
With law enforcement options limited, the social media and dating sites should be doing much more to detect fake profiles and shut them down, and to report people who are caught scamming. Facebook has recently been telling users about new capabilities to “help protect you from strangers using a photo of you as their profile picture” and trumpeting these efforts on ads posted in subway cars. But Facebook has a long way to go to get a handle on this crime epidemic facilitated by their site.
You can do your part: If you get a friend request from a fake profile — a ridiculously hot person who joined Facebook last week, a sexual come-on as the profile description, a cloned profile of one of your actual friends — ask the site to shut it down. I have done this regularly. For a period, Facebook deleted such profiles quick, but then it started refusing, insisting an obviously fake profile “doesn’t go against one of our specific Community Standards.” More recently, I have received fewer such phony friend requests, which suggests maybe Facebook is stepping up.
A Facebook spokesperson, Pete Voss, emailed me, “The safety of our community is our top priority. We have made several recent improvements to combat impersonation, including face recognition technology, automation to detect scams, and improved reporting abilities.” He suggests we report imposters here.
Finally, if you’re getting romanced online, there are all kinds of ways you can investigate whether your new suitor is real or fake, and ultimately, if you’ve seen the MTV “Catfish” TV show, you know the best way to find out for sure: ask for a video chat. If the person who has been messaging and phoning you doesn’t look in a live chat like the person in the pictures, or refuses to do a video chat at all — catfish! Say goodbye, James Blunt.