Logged On, Loved Up, Lost Out
Nowadays, when we want those to-die-for shoes, we know they can be ours at the simple click of a button. Similarly, if we want to contact our friends a quick look on Facebook will tell us what they’ve been up to recently. Want to organise your holiday in a heartbeat? Google it. In 2011, anything we want in life can be found on our computer. Technology is now the tried, tested and trusted way to customer – and life – satisfaction.
So it goes without saying that if it’s a potential partner we’re after, the easiest way to meet someone is by going online, too. Doesn't it?
The online dating business is currently worth Dhs15 billion worldwide. While overt online dating sites are illegal here in the UAE, a quick look on the internet brings up plenty of social networking groups with hundreds of male and female members, which are an increasingly popular way to meet new people. But what many hopeful single women don’t realise is that there is another booming multi-billion-dirham business online, but this time it’s dangerous and it’s one that could sucker in any romantic searching for a husband at any time.
It's known as ‘romance fraud’ – a terrifying trend that is targeting intelligent and professional Western women who are just looking for love. Originating in the 1980s among inmates in Louisiana State Penitentiary, it has since spread to west Africa, where career criminals use false names, pictures and profile details to con innocent victims out of billions of dirhams. Patiently grooming their targets, these criminals will spend months romancing women online until they feel confident enough to ask for money, whether it’s to help them with a visa or an operation they desperately need. In one 10-month period the American Embassy in the UK logged around 2,500 complaints about romance fraud. And last year alone, the UK’s National Fraud Authority reported a four-fold increase in the number of victims calling their Action Fraud helpline.
We know what you’re thinking: who would be so stupid as to simply hand over money to someone they’ve only ever met online? But according to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), hundreds of well-educated young women around the world have been targeted, and fallen pray to the scam, much to their own disbelief.
Sasha Ayres*, 33, from London, is one of them. She works for a top marketing firm in the City, has a host of qualifications and considers herself a streetwise woman. Yet last year she handed over more than Dhs58,500 to a man she fell in love with over the internet.
“I’d been single for seven months, so when a friend suggested internet dating, I decided to give it a go, I mean, everyone does it these days and I know lots of people who’ve found themselves in successful relationships from it. I soon got a message from a guy called John Briggs, who claimed to be a self-employed computer analyst from Holland,” Sasha says.
“He seemed really nice and interested in my life. I told him all about my family and even about past boyfriends. Like me, he said he was very close to his family and he sent me photos of him and his mum together.
“Before long we were instant messaging each other for hours every night and speaking on the phone regularly. He gave me advice on work problems and I helped him out with his worries over his elderly mother. Once, when I went into hospital for a small operation, he sent me flowers. My friends and family thought I’d hit the jackpot.”
Nine months after they first starting chatting, John suggested visiting Sasha. He said he had a business meeting in Nigeria and would fly on to London to see her. By then, she admits, she’d fallen for him.
However, the night before his flight, Sasha received a call from John’s brother, Ed, saying he’d been detained in Nigeria because he’d been carrying too much money into the country. “I didn’t think anything was strange about it as I was just terrified for him,” says Sasha. “I thought he must have been frantic, sitting frightened in a filthy cell somewhere.
“Ed explained that he’d been told he could pay Dhs17,500 for John’s release, but that he didn’t have the money himself. Distraught, I offered to help. After all, I knew John was a wealthy man and would pay me back when he got to London.”
For the next 10 days, Sasha wired cash to Ed – Dhs1,400 for a visa check, Dhs17,500 for an English-speaking lawyer and so on.
“Looking back, I know I was an idiot but I was so embroiled in the romance that I didn’t stop to think. I believed that if the roles were reversed John would do the same for me.”
Within a month, she’d parted with all her savings. It was only when she explained to Ed that she didn’t have any more money that he began to get aggressive and Sasha finally started to get suspicious. “At first I put his tone down to him worrying about John, but then things turned sinister.” Ed threatened to email pictures of Sasha in her underwear that she’d sent to John to her work colleagues unless she handed over another Dhs5,800. At that point, she called the police.
“Of course, it seems ridiculous to give money to a complete stranger but at the time John didn’t feel like that to me,” says Sasha. “We’d spoken every day for months and we’d even been on webcam – although he could only see me because he said his was broken. I felt like I knew everything about him.”
Sadly, Sasha’s story is far from unique. “These fraudsters prey on the victim’s vulnerability and we see all sorts of people taken in by it, no matter how intelligent they are,” says Colin Woodcock, head of SOCA. “It can happen to anyone of any age or background, because these fraudsters are clever and extremely well-practised at saying exactly what each victim wants to hear. They keep detailed notes about each one so they don’t slip up. Bear in mind that these women have gone onto dating websites looking to find love or friendship, so the emails they get back aren’t unsolicited. It all seems to happen through a legitimate experience.
“These women feel lucky that they have found love. Believe it or not, many people accept marriage roposals online without ever having met their lover in person,” says Woodcock.
So who are the men behind the deceit? In Ghana, the men creating the fake profiles are known as Sakawa Boys. They can be as young as 13 and will target several victims at a time, changing their alter egos to suit each one’s needs. This means that they will pose as anything from an American soldier serving in Iraq to a young entrepreneur with business interests abroad. They will also use photographs of real people as their profile pictures, as well as often speaking to the victim on the phone to create a believable persona.
As they associate Westerners with wealth, they tend to target those from English-speaking countries and SOCA estimates that they con British victims alone out of between Dhs350m and Dhs585m a year. And, according to them, because expats often have English-sounding email addresses they are just as much at risk, especially as single women on large salaries make ideal prey.
“The reason these men are so successful is that they will happily spend months gaining their victim’s trust before they even broach the subject of money,” says Woodcock. “They will use certain tools to convince them that they are genuine, for example sending fake family photos or getting a friend to pose as a relative or authority figure on the phone. All these small things give the scam more credibility. Many of them also send the victims gifts to their homes as a way of finding out where they live. Once you trust them and they then ask for money for something that seems beyond their control, say a broken laptop, an operation, or flights to your home, it can be hard for a victim to say no.”
Indeed, victims' failure to say no and being swept away by the romance is a huge problem for the agencies working to combat this crime. On rare occasions, victims have even been lured to West Africa and then kidnapped and taken hostage until a ransom is paid for their release.
“We had to practically beg one woman not to go to Ghana to meet her so-called lover,” Woodcock explains. “No matter what evidence we presented her with, she wouldn’t believe he wasn’t real.” And therein lies the issue; many victims are so in love that they refuse to believe their perfect man doesn’t exist.
“It takes a long time to sink in that their relationship was bogus from the start,” says Woodcock. “Romance fraud is an incredibly emotional crime. When we tell the women we’ve arrested the man involved, the first thing they do is ask if he is okay.”
Afterwards, the victims feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed. “I was devastated and felt so stupid,” admits Sasha. “Straight afterwards, John wouldn’t answer my calls so all I could do to vent my anger was to send him a furious email – hardly compensation for what he did to me. Eventually, he had the cheek to admit what he’d done and said that it had started out as a scam, but that he’d actually fallen in love with me.
“I didn’t reply and I haven’t heard from him since. It has taken a long time to get my confidence back, but I am dating again now and finding it easier to trust men, so hopefully I’ll be back to my normal self soon,” Sasha says. “‘John’ may have taken my money but I still believe in love.”
How to Fight The Fraud
Carol Smith, who runs the website keepsafeonthenet.co.uk, gives us her tips for avoiding online love scammers
● Look out for old-fashioned or overly simple names such as Jack Frost or Mary Brown.
● Check the photographs carefully. If the person is absolutely gorgeous then they are probably fake. Scammers often use photos of actors as their profile pictures.
● Search for oddities in the photos, for example foreign-looking plants, animals or furniture, such as air-con units in the background. Dated clothes or haircuts are also a giveaway.
● Be wary of anyone who says they have a job that involves travel, as these are usually used to explain a trip to Africa.
● Watch out for strange grammar, awkward-sounding sentences, pidgin English or Americanisms and inconsistencies in their stories.
● Be sceptical of anyone with unrealistic search parameters, for example a 30-year-old man looking for anyone 18-60.
● Don’t communicate offline. Scammers are wary of site invigilators so they ask their victims to leave the dating or social website and communicate via email or Facebook.
● Never send money to anyone you meet via an online dating site, no matter how plausible their request might sound.
● If you really think you’re forming a relationship, make sure you use a webcam and mic for at least some of your conversations so that you can be as certain as possible.