‘I feel absolutely devastated’
An online dating scam that has defrauded at least one woman in England of about $86,000 has a local twist.
Someone claiming to be a man named Charles Wilhelmsen is telling women online that he is in St. John’s doing work on the new Avalon Mall parking garage.
At this point, police have not determined who is behind the dating scam, but in speaking with cyber fraud experts it appears likely the name Charles Wilhelmsen is fake, and that the photos are of a man who likely has no idea his likeness is being used to scam people.
The person claiming to be Charles Wilhelmsen sent at least two women in England an article in The Telegram that discusses the parking garage construction, which prompted them to contact our reporters to find out if this man really is who he claims to be.
The first woman said she met him on a dating website at the beginning of April. He told her that he was travelling to St. John’s because he was sub-contracted to do the work on the parking garage.
His messages were romantic, but he soon said he needed financial assistance to complete the project so he could get back to England.
“He said he is currently renting an apartment in St. John’s and I attach a photo which he sent to me (that was taken) in his apartment with my profile picture on his table, which of course all adds to making me believe he is genuine,” the woman wrote.
Shortly after, The Telegram was contacted about another woman who gave her life’s savings to the man.
It was soon discovered that he sent her the exact same photo with her profile picture Photoshopped into the frame.
The names of the women are withheld to protect their privacy.
Man not doing work on parking garage
Corey Taylor is vice-president of operations with Marco Group, which is completing the Avalon Mall parking garage project.
Taylor said no one by the name of Charles Wilhelmsen or his supposed company, Charles Wilhemsen Enginering (note the company name is missing the second “L” in “Wilhelmsen”)
was subcontracted to do any work.
Taylor went so far as to check the roster of everyone who has done the safety orientation on any of their current project sites in St. John’s — that would cover anyone who would be working for them directly or sub-contracted.
The name never showed up.
“Nobody knows who he is. So, it’s just,” Taylor paused to laugh, “I’d say all-around fake.”
“He’s not related to our project, he’s not related to our company. Absolutely not,” Taylor said.
Woman scammed out of nearly £50,000
The first woman to write to The Telegram with her concerns was lucky — she was suspicious of the man’s intentions and told him that she would not give him any money.
He then stopped speaking with her.
The second woman was not so lucky.
She gave him all of her savings — she said she has nothing left but £200.
She thought she was helping him to complete the project so he could return to England and they could finally meet in person.
“I feel absolutely devastated,” she said.
“I feel stupid, but I feel hurt as well because I thought I found someone really nice.”
The woman said she’ll never be able to trust anyone again.
The man claiming to be Wilhelmsen first spoke with her online on April 2 of this year, and by May 10 he had convinced her to send the first £3,100.
Throughout the course of their conversations, he frequently asked questions that would indicate he cares about her, such as asking about her health and her family, but he also wrote about his worries with the construction project.
As with the other woman, he told her there was an issue with an expensive piece of equipment. He also said he recently struck out on his own, separating from business partners who could no longer assist him.
In other instances, he mentioned having difficulty with labour unions needing funds upfront for labourers, and needing further money for construction materials.
“You should not be asking me for that amount of money,” she told him once.
“Do you really think I won’t pay you back love?” he wrote. “Do you think I wouldn’t have used all available options before I asked you hon? Xx.”
“So where are you now?” she asked in another message.
“I sent it to you in my first email love — about Avalon mall? Xx,” he replied, and again sent her the link to The Telegram’s article about the parking garage.
He told her that he had problems with his blood pressure and that the project was getting delayed, and he’d lose £400,000 if it is not completed on time.
The constant delays with construction meant he could not see her in person in England, and he used that as an incentive for her to help him out financially.
“Can’t wait to finish up here and be with you,” he wrote, before sending details for a bank transfer.
He sometimes requested money to be transferred to an HSBC account in England, at other times to an account under the name “Walter Pankratenko” in Thunder Bay, Ont., and other transfers included a reference to “Dofas Tech” — a quick Google search says it’s a Nigerian company.
His explanation to her was that the transfers were to companies he was working with on the project or purchasing materials from.
He even gave her an address in England where he said his house is located, and he made plans to meet her at a nearby pub when he returned from Newfoundland.
When she became suspicious, she went to the address and knocked on the door.
A Polish woman answered the door and said she is renting the place. The woman knew nothing about a man named Charles Wilhelmsen.
“I cannot believe how I got taken in by this person,” she said. “It’s so stupid.”
“I was on cloud nine. I thought he was a lovely guy.”
At the same time that she sent Wilhelmsen thousands of pounds, he also sent messages such as this to the other woman:
“There are billions of people out there in the world, but you are the one person in the entire universe that I can imagine happily growing old with.”
He followed that up with a request for money.
“I want to meet you as soon as possible — the only hindrance we do have now is finishing the project on time because I have been unable to raise the required capital for the equipment. I know I already asked you before love, but what can you do at your end love? Please I am begging.”
That woman said she’s glad she realized it’s a scam.
“I just hope some other vulnerable female did not give him any financial help,” she said.
“His emails and messages were very convincing.”
Online searches of “Charles Wilhemsen Engineering” show it may also be associated with other websites, such as Tom Construction Company, Rob Strandberg Construction, Helpers Hub, and Xclusivedonor, among others — it appears they may also be used for fraudulent purposes.
Dating scams growing in popularity
David Fewer, the director of the Samuel-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, said it sounds like the scam is based out of Nigeria, but these scams can be difficult to track.
“Dating scams are incredibly popular now,” Fewer said.
“It’s incredibly difficult to get your money back when you’ve been defrauded in this way,” he added, pointing out that transactions often need to be traced across anonymous devices and international lines, which also involves local police working with police forces in other jurisdictions.
Ellie Kiai with Action Fraud, a national fraud and cyber crime reporting centre in England that works with the City of London Police, said they are looking into the complaint.
Action Fraud’s website notes that people in the United Kingdom lost about £41 million to romance fraud in 2017.
Royal Newfoundland Constabulary spokesperson Geoff Higdon said police encourage people to be extra vigilant online.
Higdon said the best advice he can offer to people concerned about getting scammed is to think critically when asked for anything by somebody over the phone or online.
“Be suspicious of their intentions, and always remember if something sounds too good to be true — it just might be.”