On the long list of cybersecurity threats facing corporate leaders, romance scams would at first glance hardly seem to crack the top 10. What could cons of lonely middle-aged singles have to do with the business email compromise (BEC) attacks increasingly targeting American corporations? Plenty, it turns out. Recent Justice Department enforcement actions and published research reports have illuminated the connection: Romance scam victims are turned into money mules — conduits for funds stolen from corporations and other victims.
Scamming people online is relatively easy. The harder part is getting money out of the U.S. and back to Nigeria, where many of the scammers are based. A corporate treasurer is likely to hesitate before wiring tens of thousands of dollars to an unknown person or company in Nigeria, even if asked to do so by the company’s CEO. A transfer request like this is also more likely to raise eyebrows at the company’s bank, but a “consulting company” with a U.S. bank account is more likely to slip through unquestioned. The romance scam victim, who has an established history of transferring money to Nigeria, is the
“consulting company” receiving the funds and transferring them onward. Why would these victims agree to do this? In many cases, they remain under the scammer’s spell and are willing to do whatever they are asked to do. In other cases, they have become financially desperate or they are being blackmailed to force their ongoing cooperation.
Romance scammers frequently target women who are 40 or older. They will often pose as an American military man living overseas, using photos grabbed from Facebook or other sites. After a period of relationship building, the male partner will start asking for money. He may say he needs surgery, but the military will cover only 80% and he asks to borrow the remaining 20%. Or perhaps he has been arrested in a dangerous part of the world and needs money to buy his freedom.
Caution and prudence are no match for hope and loneliness. It’s surprising how often this works — how willing people are to ignore the warning signs and repeated disappointments. Time after time the scammer finds an excuse about why he can’t come to visit his romantic victim, yet he always finds a way to ask for more money. In one especially sad case we tracked, a divorced woman with two children sent more than half a million dollars to a Nigerian scam artist, losing her home and forcing her to move her children out of their school.