the West African online scam using US soldiers | #lovescams | #military | #datingscams

Duped: Vanessa Gregory. Credit:Edwina Pickles

The photos of “Robert Sigfrid” had been stolen from a real US soldier with the same surname (fraudsters steal the surname because it is embroidered just above the heart on army uniforms, and then use a different Christian name). For the next eight months, Douglas spent every spare minute searching for the soldier whose ID had been stolen, and the criminal who had done it. She sent emails and messages to every person with the surname Sigfrid on social media, and to many of their friends.

“I found 16 other victims, all fooled by the exact same scammer,” she says. These women had lost as much as $1 million in total. By comparing notes, bank accounts and routing numbers, Douglas thinks she has found the name, address and the personal Facebook page of her imposter. The criminal was a professional: his written and spoken English were sophisticated, sometimes equal to hers; he had been to college in Nigeria and he had studied English in the US.

Ending the fairytale: psychologist Jacqueline Drew.

Ending the fairytale: psychologist Jacqueline Drew. Credit:Edwina Pickles

When Douglas finally spoke with the real American soldier, Joey Sigfrid, she told him the scammer claimed to have hacked his computer and knew his social security number. Joey Sigfrid reported the matter to military police, who advised him against further conversations with Douglas.

Finally, she made contact with his wife, Sandy, which triggered an unusual and ongoing friendship between the two women who loved the same man. “I wanted to apologise to her for falling in love with her husband,” says Douglas. She sent Sandy a list of the 78 profiles she had found which used Joey’s ID, and the names of all the women who had lost money. The revelation that these women had been taken in by somebody using her husband’s photos put pressure on a relationship that was already under stress, and the couple are now divorced.

Dream man: scammers used the image of US General William Caldwell to lure women, including Vanessa Gregory.

Dream man: scammers used the image of US General William Caldwell to lure women, including Vanessa Gregory.

“It is a weird feeling, it is eerie, and kind of messes with your head,” says Sandy, speaking on the phone from Florida. “It is odd that we fell in love with the same person, or so we thought.” She admits her first reaction when she heard Douglas’s story was, “Are you kidding me? Who would be so dumb as to fall for that?” Now, she regrets feeling that way. “Once I started talking to Tracee, it changed my heart altogether.”

Douglas’s case is now being investigated, but she’s doubtful it will lead to any conviction. She thinks she knows where her con artist lives, and tracks his family and friends on Facebook. “I would have never considered taking my fight outside our justice system, but when you have suffered like I and many others in my group [have], letting it go and letting him get off scot-free doesn’t sit well with me.”

Tracee Douglas believed she was engaged to US soldier "Robert Sigfrid".

Tracee Douglas believed she was engaged to US soldier “Robert Sigfrid”.

US Army three-star Lieutenant-General William B. Caldwell IV has the kind of face that is easy to love. It is open, smiling and direct. Until he retired a year ago, Caldwell was the media face of the US Army in Iraq and then Afghanistan, where he was in charge of NATO’s training.

It is so strong and trustworthy-looking that thousands of women have fallen in love with him without meeting him. These women send letters and emails. They also telephone his wife, Stephanie, a Methodist minister, to ask if their relationship is on the rocks, as is suggested online. The general’s secretary at the Georgia Military College, where he is now president after 38 years in the army, handles a steady stream of calls from his online “lovers”. These women believe the general is the same man they fell for on Skype or LinkedIn or Facebook. They think he is the man who called them his “wife”; the man who listened to their secrets; the man who found them sexy and attractive; and often, the man who took their savings.

Online romance scams like these are an “epidemic” sweeping the world, according to the US Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. Criminals are appropriating not just the IDs and photos of living soldiers, but dead ones, too. And Australian authorities say that, because of the humiliation involved, only a fraction of victims report the scams. Days before we spoke to the real General Caldwell by phone in the US, his assistant had taken a call from an Argentinian woman who was planning to fly to Georgia to be with him: “My secretary pleaded, ‘Ma’am, I hate to tell you, but general Caldwell loves his wife, he is happily married and he doesn’t go on social media sites, despite what you may think,’ ” says Caldwell.

As well as being the media face of the US Army for many years, Caldwell has won the popularity contest with scammers in West Africa. His image has been misappropriated thousands of times by fraudsters from Nigeria, Ghana and other places. They routinely change his Wikipedia page to depict him as a sad widower.

One woman who fell in love with Caldwell was Vanessa Gregory. A tall, vivacious and attractive former Queensland public servant with striking blue eyes, Gregory, now 72, was Skyping a friend soon after retiring in 2012 when she received requests to chat from “Willam [sic] Caldwell” on deployment in Afghanistan. She ignored them until his birthday, when she felt sorry for the soldier spending his birthday in a war zone. Over the next five months, the imposter, very likely a Ghanaian business syndicate of men and women, convinced her to give $130,000 to a cast of characters ranging from a French banker to an African diplomat who said they were bringing money to fund their version of happy-ever-after.

“Most people think those who get scammed are stupid, but you haven’t walked in my shoes to know,” she says. “It is like a novel, there are so many players, and they create the illusion.” Gregory would wake at 4am looking for the little light flashing on her computer that said he was waiting to Skype. It was the most intense and expressive relationship she’d experienced, she says from her home in Noosaville. Her adult children, a banker and a solicitor, couldn’t stop her from sending money. Her son Mark sent emails with the subject line “Your son who loves you”, warning that even intelligent women like her get taken, and threatening to cut off access to her grandson (which he later did).

In December 2012, she went to Brisbane Airport to give $50,000 in cash to a “diplomat” who was helping Caldwell transfer money to Australia. She finally realised she had been “taken for a fool” when the scammer signed a letter using another name. Gregory’s financial records between November 2012 to March 2013 – her years in the public service ensured she kept an audit trail for everything – reveal an intricate, Le Carré-style masquerade that involved bit players from around the world.

Gregory hoots with laughter when telling her story but there was a time when she “screamed and screamed” in despair for months, she acknowledges. Now working as an hypnotherapist, she likens her experience to that of a drug addict’s: “I am absolutely convinced I had an addiction.” Like many addicts, she lied about what she was doing, and initially told nobody about the money.

Even now that Caldwell has retired from the army, con artists continue to use his image. On one day alone in mid-November, his IT team removed 23 fake profiles using his last name and photos. His staff had discovered a new Facebook page using his photos to target young female students at Georgia Military College.

“That is sick,” Caldwell says. “They are incredibly crafty, and very perceptive about what environment I am operating in.” Fake Bill Caldwells have even found Facebook friends in his hometown in Georgia. “My wife, as recently as two weeks ago, was out with a bunch of ladies,” he says. “ ’Oh yeah, I am on Facebook with your husband,’ said one. My wife said, ‘I hate to tell you, my husband is not on Facebook, he has never had [a Facebook profile]. It is probably one of those scammers.’ ” Awkward, yes, but this is not what concerns him. “What I know I can handle,” he reflects. “But it is what I don’t know that scares me the most. People could say or do or infer something that is completely false.”

Winning a heart opens bank accounts so successfully that online romance fraud now dominates nearly all Australian cash transfers to Ghana and Nigeria. When Detective Superintendent Brian Hay of the Queensland Fraud & Cyber Crime Group started investigating money transfers to Nigeria in 2005, he found that romance fraud represented 7 per cent of victims’ losses. By 2012, this figure had jumped to more than 90 per cent of all fraud-related money. “You’ve got to look hard to find legitimate money being sent to Nigeria in cash,” he says.

Some families have been so distressed by how otherwise-normal people – with no signs of mental illness or dementia – have gone crazy for love, they’ve convinced Queensland’s Civil and Administrative Tribunal to appoint public trustees to handle a relative’s funds.

Dr Jacqueline Drew, a Griffith University psychologist working with Queensland police on ways to best persuade victims they have been deceived, says they’re seeing a growing sophistication among offenders. It is a world where “suckers’ lists” are bought and sold, and where an expert “closer” may be brought in to seal a deal. These are crime syndicates with training manuals, scripts and courses that are bought and sold. Many victims refuse to believe they have fallen prey to these operators.

Even after Tracee Douglas knew she had been duped, the photos of the real soldier made her wonder if they could have had a relationship. She finally brought herself to ask Joey Sigfrid if he would look at her twice if they met casually. His honest response: no. Still, Douglas can’t set aside her mixed stew of emotions. “It was the happiest time in my life,” she says wistfully.

If you fear you have been scammed, call Scamwatch: 1300 795 995 or visit Scamwatch online:

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