A man claiming to be a Russian astronaut trapped in space has scammed a 65-year-old Japanese woman out of tens of thousands of dollars.
The man told the woman, who lives in Higashiomi City, that he loved her and wanted to marry her, but in order to return from space and meet her in Japan, he needed her to send him money to pay for landing fees.
According to Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, between August 19 and September 5, the woman sent him 4.4 million yen, or about $30,000.
The two met on Instagram on June 28. He told her that he worked on the International Space Station, according to Yomiuri Shimbun. Over time, the man began to express his “feelings” towards her, messaging her on app Line, saying: “I want to start my life in Japan,” and: “Even if I say it 1000 times, I won’t get it, but I will keep saying it. I love you.”
This is an example of a romance scam, where someone takes advantage of another person’s emotions and convinces them that they are in love with them.
“Romance scams use emotional manipulation to trick victims into sending money or performing some other illegal activity. They usually begin online, either through a dating app or social media,” Paul Bischoff, an editor and scam expert at Comparitech, told Newsweek.
“The scammer claims to have some sort of job that prevents them from meeting the victim in person, such as a deployed soldier, doctor in a conflict zone, or, in this case, an astronaut in space. They’ll often start by “love bombing” the victim, showering them with praise and affection to gain their trust. Once the victim is sufficiently infatuated, the scammer comes up with some sort of emergency expense.”
This kind of scam has been thrust into the public eye recently thanks to a number of documentaries about the victims of fraudulent romantic partners. The Tinder Swindler, for example, is a Netflix true crime series documenting the methods used by one man to get women he met on dating apps to fall in love with him and send him huge amounts of money.
According to Bischoff, creating a sense of urgency is key to getting victims to pay up without thinking things through, including emergencies like medical procedures or an issue with customs at the border.
“Whatever the case, the scammer claims they can’t make the payment from their current location due to their occupation, and asks the victim to pay instead. The scammer promises to repay the victim, but never does, and instead keeps requesting more money. This scam can go on for weeks or even months as victims get both emotionally and financially invested in the fraudulent relationship,” he said.
In this case, the scammer used the image of a real Russian cosmonaut, according to Japanese news station Asahi TV.
“I believed the names of real institutions such as NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency),” the woman told Yomiuri Shimbun, according to a translation.
Even after sending him $30,000, the man continued to request more money, which caused the woman to become suspicious and report him to the police.
“Romance scams are pretty easy to avoid but, as they say, love is blind, and people don’t always act rationally when they’re infatuated,” said Bischoff. “Never send money to someone whom you have never met in real life. Research the people whom you are interested in on dating apps. Run a reverse image lookup on their profile images to see if they’ve been lifted from someone else’s profile. If someone seems overly enthusiastic about a prospective relationship, be skeptical. If you feel rushed to send money or hand over private information, take a moment to consider that you might be getting scammed.”
According to VICE, the number of all fraud cases in Japan rose from 8,693 to 14,498 between 2012 and 2021. In the U.S., people have reported $1.3 billion of losses in romance scams over the last five years, according to the Federal Trade Commission.