Tap here to turn on desktop notifications to get the news sent straight to you. The scammers may just have lit upon the perfect crime: They sit at computers safely overseas, hunting for their prey on social networks, and they rarely get caught. Jones is a victim too: His name and photos were stolen to create the fake identities used in romance scams.
The odds of recovering that money, the bureau notes, are very low. Some of the money scammed by international criminal networks even winds up in the hands of terrorist operations like Boko Haram, according to Interpol. This is crazy, I know! We also talked with members of a cottage industry that has sprung up to support the defrauded: And we spoke to FBI investigators, academics and researchers who study cyberfraud. Like Warnack, she still struggles emotionally to accept what happened.
The two men in Nigeria pleaded guilty for their roles in scamming the Texas woman in July and were sentenced to three years in prison. Over the next two years, she sent more money in response to each new story he told her, she said, because, after all, they were in love.
The Most Likely Victims According to FBI data, 82 percent of romance scam victims are women and women over 50 are defrauded out of the most money. Using fake profiles on online dating sites and social networks, including Facebook, scammers troll for the lonely and the vulnerable. They promise love and marriage and build what feels like a very real relationship to the victim. Someone who has fallen for a scam before is a favored mark.
Those names and identities are often sold to other criminals. A Federal Trade Commission study published in found another telling commonality among all kinds of fraud victims: And should they wise up, they may be threatened and blackmailed by their faux lovers. The scammer may even admit the crime to the victim, but then swear he has actually fallen in love with her.
More than one woman has wound up charged with crimes. Victims live around the globe. Ruth Grover, who lives in northeast England, runs ScamHaters , a website that posts warnings about online profiles that appear to be scammers. Many victims there and elsewhere are not wealthy and must borrow the money they send to the scammers. While Nigerian scams targeting an international audience in particular predate the internet, as The Guardian reported in January, the advent of social networks and email has broadened the potential victim list and changed the game.
These scammers are not just young people set on a career criminal path. The video shows luxury cars bearing license plates for each day of the week, beautiful women and expensive liquor on tap, and dollars carelessly tossed on the floor like confetti. Many of the early online scams were run out of pay-per-hour internet cafes, some of which would even shut down to the public while the larger scamming operations took over.
With better and cheaper internet connections these days, scammers can often work from home. They cast a Vodun spell, which is akin to voodoo, to essentially hypnotize their victims into giving up the money. Scammers often work in teams of five or six, with each member playing a specific role, according to experts who study and prosecute online fraud.
One person opens communication as the faux lover. Teammates sometimes impersonate a doctor or a nurse demanding to be paid after a medical emergency.
Or they pose as work associates or friends of the paramour, to whom the victim can send the money. It is all scripted: The criminals can download their scripts off plenty of online sites.
Last year, a year-old British woman was sentenced to two years in prison for being a scriptwriter for romance scammers. One script she wrote tried to capitalize on an American tragedy.
The scammer was supposed to say: He made it out of the collapsed building but he later died because of heavy dust and smoke and he was asthmatic. When the victim seeks a face-to-face meeting, the script offers creative ways for scammers to say no or to cancel later. Sometimes thousands of phony online identities are created from one set of stolen photos.
Soldiers represent protection, another appealing trait. The Army Criminal Investigation Command CID receives hundreds of complaints a month from victims who say they formed an online relationship with someone claiming to be a U.
There are no circumstances in which a member of the U. When it comes to photo theft, rank offers no privileges. Campbell was the top U. Campbell, now retired , took to Facebook to warn people after he and his staff uncovered more than fake profiles using his image in the first six months after he took over the U. Jones Without his knowledge, Dr. Of course, men who are drawn into these scams come from many walks of life. In the case of Dr.
A good part of his life is spent dodging these heartbroken women, some of whom who think he personally ripped them off. One woman made an appointment for hypnosis with his New York office. She showed up with color printouts of his photos that she believed he had sent her. When Jones posted on his real Facebook page that HuffPost wanted to speak with women who had been bilked by scammers using his name, more than 50 responded in less than 24 hours. He also posted this public service announcement on YouTube about how to avoid being scammed.
The Facebook photos of Las Vegas resident Michael Besson were also stolen and used to create hundreds of fake profiles on Facebook and other sites. One woman from a small town in Illinois showed up at the door of his home, he said. He said his motive in speaking publicly was simple: Courtesy of Michael Besson This photo of Michael Besson with his daughter has appeared on hundreds of scammers' profiles. Scammers Play In Social Media Social media and dating sites, where people volunteer details about their personal lives, are a natural habitat for scammers.
Dating sites appear to be aware of the role they play, however unintentionally, in romance fraud. It is standard for such sites to disclaim any responsibility for fake profiles that appear. An industry executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told HuffPost that some sites fight back surreptitiously. They block users who they suspect are scammers without telling them. Any money paid is returned on the back end to the presumably stolen credit card. Victims need to be told: If the person is not willing to meet them in the first month, move on to find someone who will!
Zoosk , a dating app with 40 million online profiles and members in 80 countries, lets users make a video of their face with the app that a human moderator will then view and match up with the submitted photos. Many scam victims told HuffPost that they feel Facebook is not sufficiently proactive when it comes to weeding out and blocking the fraudsters. The site asks users to report posts or messages that ask them to inappropriately share personal information or send money.
Voss declined to discuss how many reports it receives. The issue of what responsibility social networks, including Facebook, bear for enabling scammers is one that troubles many victims. Grover, of ScamHaters, thinks that Facebook could be more cooperative in policing its site. Facebook declined to respond to questions regarding its general criteria for removing pages or why it has taken down some specific sites, but individuals do appear to be using the site to facilitate financial scams.
It had grown to almost 1, members over the course of several hours. When it was reported, Facebook took it down. Facebook But as soon as one page is removed, another seems to replace it.
HuffPost also found this page called Yahoo Boys, which Facebook has since removed. But, he noted, sometimes it is done more openly. Two of the five were taken down before we could screenshot them; here are the three that remained. Scam victim sites suggested that the man in the photo is actually a singer in the U. Screenshots of Facebook pages These Facebook profiles existed simultaneously, all using the same photo. Facebook declined to comment on the specifics of these screenshots. For example, when someone receives a friend request, our systems are designed to check whether the recipient already has a friend with the same name, along with a variety of other factors that help us determine if an interaction is legitimate.
The FBI said it does not comment on the policies and practices of private companies, and a Justice Department spokesman said that as a matter of policy, it would not publicly discuss prosecution strategies.
Jones, the hypnotherapist whose photos are regularly lifted from Facebook, argues however that if the site really tried, it could quash the problem entirely. He thinks that the large sites have programs in place that thwart scams pre-emptively and thus reduce the risk to users.
Still, ZeroFox conducted a study of money scams on Instagram last year and found that scams were being created at an estimated rate three times higher than the rate at which they were being taken down. Every digital device connected to the internet has an Internet Protocol address, a unique set of numbers that reveals, among other information, the country in which it is connected. Anyone can check an IP address , though some browser extensions will send an alert if someone is doing that.
So savvy scammers use a virtual private network to hide their IP addresses. Scammers like to move their conversation with their victims off Facebook or online dating services and onto other messaging platforms where, unbeknownst to their victims, they can organize all their communications. Leaving Facebook as soon as possible also protects the scammer from the risk that their fake profile may be reported and taken down.
Scammers never want to appear on camera in a live video chat, but will sometimes send a prerecorded video that shows what a loving dad they are or how handsome they look captaining their sailboat. Obviously, these videos are stolen, too. There are multiple YouTube videos on how to do it.
Virtual Cam Whores , a service that creates customizable video, can also add a layer of authenticity.