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Cyber crooks target those looking for love

By Claudia Buck, McClatchy Newspapers –

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It started so sweetly. She was a lonely Yuba City, Calif., widow, looking for conversation online. He was an Auburn, Calif., architect, divorced with two teenagers and a job that took him overseas.

Slowly, he reeled her in, wooing her by phone and email with endearments and romantic promises of their life together.

“He was very smooth,” said the woman, who asked that her real name not be revealed because she is embarrassed, and whose story was confirmed by the FBI. “It was ‘Honey’ this, ‘Honey’ that. ‘I love you so much.’ … He told me God meant for us to be together.”

A retired nurse whose physician husband had died three years earlier, she believed “Marcello” when he professed love. And she believed him when the stories started: when he flew to Switzerland for business and a colleague was injured, when his bank wouldn’t let him access his account, when his diabetic daughter needed a kidney transplant, when he was hospitalized for a brain injury, even when an Italian mobster kidnapped him and demanded ransom money.

Looking back, she says, it all sounds completely unbelievable. There were so many red flags, but at the time, her heart convinced her otherwise.

She began wiring money to cover one financial emergency after another. “It was always that he needed one more little bit of money. … It never ended. Once you’re under their spell, you can’t stop.”

It started in June 2009 and ended nearly a year later when she discovered her Auburn architect was actually a 29-year-old Nigerian. She was “flabbergasted.”

She was also out $500,000.

Known as a “romance scam,” this type of fraud has been around for decades but has accelerated with the proliferation of online dating and social media sites.

Based mostly in Nigeria, Ghana, England or Canada, these romantic predators prowl for prospects on dating sites, chat rooms, military sites and social media venues, according to the FBI. Working from Internet cafes, they pose as U.S. citizens whose work or family emergencies require travel overseas. Their targets are typically women, in their 40s to 60s, often widowed, divorced or disabled.

In every case, their persistent sweet-talking — always online, never in person — eventually leads to money-stalking.

“It’s an emotionally devastating scam,” said Kim Garner, vice president of global security with, a wire transfer company that routinely contacts people — mostly women — whose transactions appear to be possible fraud by a romantic pursuer.

Last year, she said MoneyGram refunded $13.75 million involving 4,880 transactions that were identified as romance scams.

In general, romance scams may be a tiny teardrop in the online crime bucket. In 2010, IC3, the federal government’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, reported 303,800 complaints of online fraud, its second-largest tally ever. But the exact number of romance scams is difficult to determine, IC3 officials say, because the incidents often get reported as ID theft or other types of online fraud.

Regardless, romance scams are vastly underreported, said Kevin Baker, a white-collar crimes expert in the FBI’s Sacramento office, primarily because of people’s embarrassment over being duped.

The problem is so pervasive that the government of Ghana, on its U.S. embassy website, warns Americans about sending money to Ghana residents they’ve never met who “profess friendship or romantic interest over the Internet.”

Too often, the embassy noted, the online encounters move into “love at warp speed” but ultimately degenerate into requests for money: medical problems requiring a loan, promised repayment from an inheritance of gold/gems, airline tickets to visit the United States, bribes to immigration officials.

If you do lose money, it notes, “your chances of getting it back are almost nil. This type of crime is not a priority for local police, even if they had the resources to tackle it. The embassy can offer a sympathetic ear but, often, little else.”

And in a doubly cruel twist, some romance fraudsters strike twice. After victims confront the scammer or threaten to call police, they start getting phony calls, supposedly from law enforcement, requesting a fee to initiate a criminal investigation.

“It’s all about the money. Nothing else. They have a million schemes up their sleeves,” said the FBI’s Baker.

Romance scams are extremely difficult and labor-intensive to investigate, said Baker. The scammers use prepaid cellphones that can’t be traced. They operate out of Internet cafes, using email addresses that are faked.

“If it was a terrorist bombing, we’d have every FBI expert in the country working on it. But when you’re talking about thousands of these … cases being reported nationwide, we just can’t possibly spend the resources,” said Baker. “It takes extra manpower tracing money, emails or people and unfortunately we have to prioritize.”

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