When Barbara El-Gamal was stuck with poor letters in the online game Words with Friends, she reluctantly played “tit” for bird, fearing her suspiciously chatty opponent would be excited by its double meaning.
His reply, that he bet “she had the best ones going”, was typical of a wave of scammers who are preying on women playing the online word game, created by Zynga.
Genuine players of the Scrabble-like game don’t talk, other than to exchange a perfunctory hello, said Ms El-Gamal, a long-time player who uses the game to keep in touch with family and friends.
She said scammers – often posing as lonely and sad widowed men based on oil rigs or working for the United Nations in places such as Afghanistan or Syria – have infiltrated the online app.
As a former senior public servant with NSW Fair Trading, Ms El-Gamal of Port Macquarie has been able to identify scams, often keeping the conversation going to spot common scenarios.
The scams she’s identified are typical of the hundreds being reported on Zynga’s Words with Friends’ online forum.
A player warned others after her grandmother had sent a scammer called Larry $30,000.
Another player, who uses the handle, AnneIRT, said she had also been scammed. “I had about five that were really convincing. Just a coincidence that they all work on oil rigs, are widowed or divorced, and fell madly in love with my pictures.”
Another player called BlueStone reported a scammer who claimed to work on an oil rig for months at a time and was missing his dead wife and children.
“Geez! Continue to report these jerks but sadly, don’t expect Zynga to take action!”
Most scammers use stolen photos and identities.
A scammer using the name Richard Bricks, who tried to woo a player and asked her for money and iTunes cards, used a photo of Argentinian actor Juan Soler.
A player called Sherrylc did an image search and found that the photo was of the famous actor with his daughter Mia. She warned others on Zynga’s online forum to watch out.
Most of the scammers, but not all, are poor players because they speak English as a second language. Many have been tracked to Nigeria.
“His spelling is perfect and can write a love letter like no other,” Sherrylc said of the man who used Soler’s photo. When she spoke to him, his English was poor.
“Ladies beware of Richard Bricks, his Words picture of him and his daughter is of Argentina Actor Juan Soler,” Sherrylc wrote.
“He will profess his love for you in days, send you songs and request you go to Hangouts to talk. Works on an Oil Rig in Gulf of Mexico and contract is almost up but he is struck due to his bank account frozen and can’t get a letter from his lawyer for completion of job. Asks for ITune cards constantly, speaks with an accent from Netherlands and lives in California, has a daughter in boarding school. Drops phone on the rig and instantly wants me to send a new one.
“This went on for weeks until I ended it, he sent me pictures from Juan Soler’s Facebook page and claims It’s him, LOL, accent so thick sounds not European,” wrote Sherrylc.
Ms El-Gamal said she was concerned that lonely older women could be scammed. In most cases, scam players immediately use endearments such as “my dear”, “beautiful” and “honey”, she said. They urged players to talk to them on Google Hangouts or provide their email addresses.
Ms El-Gamal said many players had started to use handles such as “ThisIsNotTinder” to deter scammers, or used a name that demonstrated they had a spouse and family.
Delia Rickard, deputy chairwoman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), says romance scams such as these are increasingly being seen in apps and social media.
“Scammers keep up with technology and nowhere is out of bounds for them when they are looking for their next victim, not even [Scrabble-like] apps,” Ms Rickard said.
She urged people playing online games or using social media to be alert to spelling and grammatical errors, and inconsistencies in stories. She said players should also avoid providing personal information.
No matter how convincing the story, they should “never ever send money, iTunes gift card numbers, credit card or online account details to strangers”.
In a coincidence, Words with Friends this week announced it had added “hotdish”, and other words to its online dictionary. “Hotdish” is an American word for casserole.
Zynga was asked for comment. It didn’t respond before deadline.