Crime And Criminals Blog - Crimes, criminals, scams and frauds.

Monday, August 28, 2006

How Romance Scams Work

A romance scam essentially occurs when a stranger sweeps you off your feet(or tries to) and worms his/her way into your affections with the sole intention of laying their hands on your money/bank account or by getting you to commit financial fraud on their behalf. Most of these scams seem to originate from,and are prevalent in West Africa (especially Nigeria) although they are becoming increasingly common in Russia and Eastern Europe. Another emerging region is Thailand and The Phillipines or any other country where 'mail order' brides are available.

Although they both involve sending money, typically to Nigeria, romance scams are very different from "advance fee fraud" (or 419 as it is called). Your typical 419 scam uses greed to lure the victims by inviting them to share in money that they do not really deserve. Ostensibly, the money belongs to a deposed dictator, or a wealthy businessman who has no known heirs or even to a dying reclusive miser who has seen the error of his ways. Whatever the story, they need your help to get the money abroad otherwise it will be forfeited to the government. All they need is your bank account and identity details to facilitate payment. Once baited the scammer will introduce all sorts of hurdles that require various sorts of fees, costs, and taxes to enable the transfer of the millions of dollars that they are promising. The key motivator for the victim in this case is greed.

Romance Scams, on the other hand, rely on creating strong emotional ties that by-pass logical thought and appeal strongly and exclusively on emotions ie love. These feelings are triggered by using appealing photos, dream profiles on dating sites, persuasive and flattering words, poetry and love song lyrics. The strategy is essentially to get you to fall in love/lust so strongly that you want to be with them right now and forever. The promise of marriage is very common in this con because they know that no one will refuse to do a small favour for their 'wife' or 'husband'. Marriage (or the promise of it) also increases the element of trust and the resulting mind control. The key motivator for the victim is love and romance. Of course the motivation for the perpetrator in all cases remains greed.


The scammers target their victims by posting fake profiles on multiple dating sites. Anyone looking for love on the internet is at risk because scammers are known to target every sort of dating site including niche sites like religious, gay, professional, etc. They will target marks from any race, sexual orientation, nationality, age and location but prefer middle aged men or women looking for long term relationships because they are more likely to have higher incomes, more assets and might be more desperate to attract a potential mate. In all cases however, all that the scammers are concerned about is that potential victims are willing and ready to open their hearts (and later, their wallets) to them. The insidious and callous nature of the perpetrators is exposed by discovering that there have been cases of wheelchair bound victims on disability allowance who have been conned by being led to believe that someone loves them deeply and wants to marry them. It is harsh to be not only be fleeced, but to be left broken-hearted and many victims end up suffering massive loss of self-esteem. Although they target both men and women, almost all the scammers are actually men who pose as women in order to seduce their male victims. They are able to do this because there are typically more men than women who post profiles on dating sites and also because most of the communication is done via email and instant messaging. However, if and when they need to, the scammers will hire a female voice to talk to their male vitims.

They tend to hide behind stolen photographs, normally of attractive professional models. The fraudsters will usually claim to be from the USA or the UK (if English) and other Western Europe countries for other languages. The scammers claim to be going abroad or are already working abroad (mainly Nigeria) on some short term project. Mostly, they will claim to be engineers, IT professionals, pilots, models or any other glamorous or high flying career. They use highly scripted profiles on the dating sites that are designed to be very smooth and alluring . It does not matter if the dating site is an 'exclusive' one that tries to keep out 'undesirables' by charging a high fee because the scammers will pay for membership using a stolen credit card. Should they spot a desperate sounding or naive profile, the scammers will create a 'tailor-made' profile designed to target that unsuspecting victim in particular. They seek to quickly establish contact and rapport and move you away from the moderated forums and chat rooms so that they can 'work' you. This goes progressively from email, instant messaging, telephone calls and finally web cam (especially important to verify that the victim is real). Bearing in mind that the photos that they posted are not really theirs, they will never reveal themselves on web cam and usually blame this on the dilapidated state of the internet in West Africa.

The scammers then set about establishing intimacy by using pet names and many times claim that fate or even a higher power has pre-ordained the romance. Almost always, they use free email services especially Yahoo or Hotmail, which should be a dead give away. They quickly declare love and express a strong desire to be physically present with their victims. The scammers are very devoted and dote on their victims, sending romantic and flirtatious messages sometimes up to 20 times a day. They never give their victims an opportunity to forget them as they bombard them with plagiarized poetry and lyrics from romantic love songs. Many times they will send their victims romantic and thoughtful gifts such as flowers, candy, expensive chocolate, lingerie and even birthday presents for the victim's children, all purchased with stolen credit cards. The scammers (who commonly work in groups of up to 6 people) tend to be very good judges of character and know which buttons to push and will say things that make their victims fall very deeply in love. The grooming period typically lasts up to 4 months but it is not unheard of for victims to be prepared for 12 or more months. It all depends on the skill of the (team of) scammer(s) and the 'desperation' of the victim to find love. The grooming period ends when the scammer successfully proposes to his/her intended victim and the victim starts thinking of a wedding ceremony taking place in the forseeable future. The victim is all primed up and in their minds this is the end of an often long quest to find happiness. The scammers are very good at building and exploiting their victims dreams and ambitions and use these to ingratiate themselves. They are very supportive of their victims dreams, be they simply settling down and raising a family to cycling across the sahara desert or to pursuing a career. Nothing is too much for the scammer who now appears to be the perfect partner because they are so thoughtful, supportive and considerate. The victims cannot be convinced that their beloved is not the most wonderful, loving and supportive man/woman in the world. Little do they know that that this is just the begining of their worst nightmare.

The scam kicks in

The extortion phase of the con begins once the perpetrator is certain that he can exercise a certain amount of mind control based on the feelings of love that he has established and nutured. At this point, the scammer is still claiming to be abroad temporarily on an international job/assignment/project or assignment and cannot wait to finish it so that they can be together. Unfortunately, for a whole range of reasons, the scammer does not have sufficient cash to make the trip to be together with his/her partner. Many times, there is no request for direct financial assistance and all that the scammer requests is for his beloved to help overcome the problem by doing them a 'small favour' to help facilitate the trip. Key to the scam is the fact that the victim by this stage is ready to do anything to have their 'partner' by their side and the 'favour' is an innocent sounding request to cash a cheque/postal order for them. The scammers normally claim that these are work related cheques that they haven't been able to cash due to the different banking system in Nigeria, but they can also take the form of 'someone owes me money' or 'a client wishes to pay me in dollars not local currency' variety. In all these scenarios the victim will receive what are in fact expertly forged or stolen cheques that will eventually get rejected by the isssuing banks. Whatever the story, the scammer ensures that he scores brownie points by asking the victim to keep a share of the cheque for themselves. This not only reinforces the feelings of love and trust within the victim but also serves to incriminate the victim thereby reducing any chance of reporting to the authorities because in the eyes of the law the victim becomes an accomplice by keeping a portion of the stolen money. For example, the scammer may send the victim a forged or stolen cheque worth $4,000 and ask the victim to retain $800 for themselves and to forward the remaining $3,200 to Nigeria via a telegraphic money transfer service, usually Western Union or Moneygram. The scammers like to use these services because it is impossible to trace the recepients of the money.

The problem (for the scammer) with this method is that once the victim cashes the first cheque, the scammer is then in a race against the clock. This is because the bank is sure to get in touch with the victim to alert them about the stolen/forged cheques that they deposited. The banks will then often freeze the victims account or demand immediate payment or threaten to involve the authorities. The scammer knows that the victim is unlikely to cash any more cheques once the lie is exposed and so they try to make the victim cash as many cheques as they can before the banks discover the bad cheques and start demanding repayment. The time period will depend on individual banks but generally varies between a few weeks to a few months. This is therefore a one hit affair and the scammer expects to receive one or two large sums and then nothing at all after that. For this reason, some scammers prefer to have many small but frequent transfers spread over a longer time because they can make more money that way. These small(er) amounts of money are necessary in order to solve some minor problems that are standing in the way of the the two lovers finally meeting up. The tales that the scammers spin are constantly evolving but some of the more common ones are listed below.

Common variations

Although sending their victims forged or stolen bankers or postal drafts and cheques and/or money orders are the most common methods of pulling off the scam, there are other methods that scammers use to extract money from their victims. The scammers are constantly 'innovating' but the common thread between these and any others not mentioned below is that they prevent the two lovers from being reunited and need a modest amount of money to resolve the problem so that the two lovers can finally be together.

  1. The scammer falls seriously ill or is seriously injured in a car crash while in Nigeria and needs urgent medical attention for his life to be saved. The victim is contacted by a hospital 'adminstrator' because the patient (scammer) is in a coma or unconcious. They will inform the victim that they found a notebook in his baggage which has listed the victim as next of kin and as such the victim needs to pay for medical treatment. Without this medical attention, the 'patient' is sure to die.
  2. Sometimes they use a more direct route and simply ask their victims to 'lend' them the money to be able to purchase a ticket or to be able to cover departure tax always promising to repay the money once they are finally together. The scammer may claim that they have been mugged and/or have lost their wallets.
  3. The scammer can claim to have an unpaid hotel bill and that they being held hostage by the hotel manager or their passports or other documents have been confiscated. The scammers will desperately plead for money to settle the hotel bill promising to repay the money when the two love birds finally meet.
  4. Sometimes, the scammer will ask the victim to open a bank account in the victims name or to cede control of an existing account so that the perpetrator can deposit a large cheque. The commonest excuse is that the scammer wants to start a business to guarantee their future finacial status but the authorities in Nigeria will not allow them to leave with the cheque. Again, the victim becomes a potential suspect in money laudering and/or an accomplice in criminal theft.
  5. Scammers frequently ask their victims to reship goods for them to Nigeria. This is because many businesses in the world will not ship goods directly to Nigeria until full payment is received by their banks. A credit card in the hands of a Nigerian scammer is virtually worthless because no merchant will agree to send goods to Nigeria, but by using his victims address (normally in the USA or Western Europe) he is able to order huge amounts of high value electronic goods using the stolen credit cards. He then arranges for either the victim or an 'associate' to pick them up the following day and ship them to the scammer in Nigeria where they will be sold. Obviously, when the credit card company fails to honour the payment, the merchant pursues the victim for the goods or the money. The victim becomes responsible for the bill because the goods were delivered to their address.
  6. Eastern European scammers tend to use the guise of mail order bride agencies to scam their victims. Like their Nigerian counterparts, the lady in question is incredibly attractive and a rapport is quickly established and the lady declares the victim to be her dream partner. Before long there is a desire to meet up to test 'compatibility' but the victim needs to pay for her passport, visa and ticket before she can come over to be with him. Needdless to say, even after stumping up all this money she will never materialise and the victim is left with an empty wallet and an aching heart.
  7. Not a common variation of the scam - some scammers will ask you to take cash advances on your credit cards, then offer to pay off the balances for you, of course you have to give them your credit card and security information. They will pay on the card, but not the entire balance, so you will accrue a very high interest rate on the remaining balance and advance.
  8. Finally, the scammers purchase high value goods off e-bay or similar services and have the victims pay for them by sending money to diverse locations through out the world. In this way the scammer is able to receive high value goods sent to them and erase a paper trail.

The End

Whatever form the scam takes, the scammer will keep trying to make as much money as they can until the victim cannot afford to send any more or until the victim realize that their 'spouse' will never come and that they are being conned. It is common then for the scammer to terminate the relationship himself because he knows that the victim is unlikely to send any more money and he would rather deal with a more 'productive' victim. Many times however, it is the authorities knocking on their door (with threats of imprisonment) that alerts many victims to the fact that they have been taken in. At this point, the victims go through a whole range of emotions- the first and strongest usually being shock. Many victims will often feel 'numb', then feel embarassed for being taken in. Most victims then feel violated, angry, worthless and even depressed. In recognition of the emotions that the victims will often go through, two former victims of these romance scams (Theresa Smalley and Barb Sluppick) got together and formed a support group ( that aims to "help any victim of a romance scam heal by providing a safe haven, free of criticism and judgement and to protect future potential victims by educating as many people as possible." They also provide practical and useful advice to victims on how they may protect themselves from further legal complexities and financial exposure.

Size of the Problem

Romance scams have become the natural successor of advance fee fraud activities. This is because many people in the West are much more aware of the typical 419 type scam; the returns are a lot better with romance scams which are relatively unknown and appeal to love and romance rather than greed. The romance scammers can make more money by skimming smaller amounts from thousands of victims rather than one large sum from very few victims. So, instead of milking $30,000 from one victim in a 'normal' 419 scam, romance scammers find it much easier to make $1,500 from 20 victims. The US State Department reported in 2004 that Nigerian email scam constituted the biggest consumer fraud threat on the internet.

As of 2004, there were 8.4 Million fully paid subscribers to over 1,000 internet dating sites. In fact, 1% of all internet activity is dating and romance related. The market was worth $516 million in 2005. On many dating sites, up to one third of all profiles are fake, thus ensuring that any user who communicates with just two other members runs a real risk of coming into contact with these scammers. Assuming just a 1% response rate, then there were at least 84,000 people who each stood to loose a relatively modest $1,000 each. The total losses in this scenario work out to be more than $84 million, and that is in just in 2004 alone. Now, consider that this frightening amount of $84M is based on just a 1% rate - the grim reality is that the actual response rates are closer to 10% and the average losses are more than $2,500 per victim. It is not a wonder then, that email fraud is Nigeria's 5th largest 'export' and the only source of income for millions of educated but unemployed 18-45 year olds in Nigeria. And this situation will only get worse in the future because these huge sums of money (and the associated glamour) attract more and more people to the scamming 'industry' in a country where the average wage for a person in formal employment is between $50 and $70 per month. Indeed, there are thousands of reports of people leaving formal jobs to become 'yahoo-yahoo boys. The Internet Crime Complaint Centre (a US government funded research organization) reported 207,449 Nigerian fraud complaints resulting in losses of $68 Million in 2004 alone. These figures, however, are very conservative because many victims never report these types of crimes to the authorities. Many victims are too embarrassed to speak, fear that they may be arrested, the associated bureaucracy (so many forms and departments) or don't bother when they realize that the FBI cannot apprehend the Nigerian-based scammers (so why report?). Taking these factors into consideration, then the $2,200,000 (yes! $2.2M) loss that 243 members of Yahoo RomanceScams group reported (an average of $9,000+ per victim as of May 2006) seems to be a more accurate and reliable figure and a true indicator of the size of the problem. It is in recognition of the threat that these Nigerian (and other) scammers pose to the internet-using public that led federal law enforcement agencies to launch a website ( to help combat these cyber outlaws.

Scams & Swindles: Phishing, Spoofing, ID Theft, Nigerian Advance Schemes Investment Frauds: How to Recognize And Avoid Rip-Offs In The Internet Age


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:43 AM


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