South African women are being duped into parting with thousands of rand in an international online “romance scam” that’s leaving them out of pocket and broken-hearted.
An international syndicate behind this scam apparently targets 2000 people a day. In one case, a Durban woman who would only be identified as Stacey, who had lost her husband of 32 years, told this week how she had become a target of the scam last year, losing R25 000.
“I registered a profile on an online dating site innocently thinking that everyone there was also just trying to find the right partner,” she said.
She was contacted by “Jason” and, after exchanging email addresses, Stacey was informed he was an industrial engineer of Scottish and Hungarian descent, widowed, and with a grandson in England.
“We’d chat, and he was wonderful. He even used Hungarian words, which I researched, and it was all correct.”
Her suspicions grew when he didn’t agree to a video chat. “When he finally relented, an image of a man came up but there were problems with signal and audio,” she said.
The relationship continued for more than two months. Jason told her he was on contract in Ghana and once his work was done, he wanted to fly to South Africa to be with her.
The day before he was due to land, he told her an ATM had swallowed his credit card and he urgently needed to pay his foreman $5000 (R74000) before he left.
“There was an urgency to it, and I felt under pressure. At first I said I have no money, and he kept calling, so I deposited about R25000 via money transfer into his account in Ghana,” she said.
“I was convinced everything was legit and he sent me a picture of himself in the plane to SA.”
But the wait at the airport soon turned into tears. “I finally discovered he was from Ghana and reported my experience to the US-based Society of Citizens Against Romance Scams. All the images he sent to me are already there.
“I found out there is a wide syndicate that writes scripts for the stories they tell women. There are fraudulent websites especially created for the scam and photos are staged.”
Although embarrassed, she reported the incident to police in the event that any of her details emerge in criminal activities.
In another case, a Durban woman, who would only be identified as Esther, told how she had been propositioned on Facebook by a man from the UK.
“We spoke every night and he was so caring and called me honey. When you speak to someone so often you start to develop feelings for them,” she said.
Esther’s online relationship continued for weeks, and he told her he would soon be on his way to be with her and was sending a parcel to her with a laptop, cellphone, an engagement ring and “lots of foreign money” in advance.
“I was called and told I had to pay a fee to release the parcel, about R5000. Stupid me borrowed the money to pay for it, thinking that my engagement ring was in there,” she said.
Neither the ring nor the man materialised. “I was crushed because we’d had many conversations.”
Manie van Schalkwyk, of the South African Fraud Prevention Service, said there had been significant growth in these scams.
“In the US, it has caught the attention of the FBI, which has a dedicated unit to address what it estimates to have cost victims more than $230million in 2016,” he said.
“Scammers typically seek out individuals who are older than 50, either single or in difficult relationships, who are looking for romance. It’s not hard for these people to target the emotionally vulnerable as people reveal much about themselves on social media sites.
“The scammer entices a prospective date with endearing messages that make the victim feel loved. This is the technique that inspires trust and leads the perpetrator to ask for a gift or money or a favour of some kind,” he said.
Last week, the Saturday Star reported how the National Director of Public Prosecutions had turned to the high court in Pretoria in a bid to have R80560 deposited into a bank account used in an online love scam forfeited to the state.
Molahleni Mopedi, a police officer from the cybercrime unit, stated in court papers that he had received a tip-off about a Nigerian national operating an online dating scam from a house in Kempton Park.
All the victims told how they had fallen in love with the men they had chatted to online and, when asked, they paid money over to them. In one instance, a woman identified only as M, had paid R198000 in cash to her online lover, even couriering her diamond and sapphire ring to him, while in another an East Rand woman made 47 payments totalling R140000 to a man on an online dating site.