Internet Dating and Romance Scams

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Smart Consumer: The lonely heart mum who lost €300,000 in an internet scam

By Bill Tyson
Thursday May 27 2010
Sarah Cook (not her real name) thought she had met someone special. The mother of two had registered with an internet dating site, and within weeks had met a US army sergeant serving in Iraq.

They would chat online almost daily, swapping stories about his life on base with hers in an English rural town, and over the next 18 months their relationship deepened.

Mrs Cook (52) felt she had a genuine connection with this intriguing soldier — so much so that she was willing to help him financially.

But the charming and ruggedly handsome, Stetson-wearing American was not what he appeared. He was in fact a 31-year-old Ghanaian scamster called Maurice Asola Fadola. And by the time police caught up with him, he had conned Mrs Cook out of €300,000.

The case is one of the most serious examples of the increasing variety of email fraud where international con artists prey on unwary or vulnerable Westerners such as Mrs Cook.

They operate from banks of computers in offices and internet cafes. Many, like Fadola, are based in West Africa, particularly Nigeria, where it is a massive industry.

These gangs, generating hundreds of millions of dollars, are seen as prestigious employers offering well-paid and secure work.

The youngsters harvest information from forums, chatrooms, guestbooks, dating websites, or anywhere people leave their email address.

They are helped by software programmes designed to spot key words that betray vulnerability such as ‘lonely’, or wealth, such as the brand name of an expensive car in an online ad.

When a potential victim replies, they are referred further up the scammers’ corporate ladder to a more senior ‘executive’. He or she may adopt an Anglo Saxon name — one like Steven Westmore, the moniker assumed by Fadola.

Like most scammers, ‘Steven’ soon revealed all the intimate details of his life to Mrs Cook. He had a house in Texas, his son was studying medicine and his wife had died in a car crash — a common line used by such con men.

Mrs Cook hoped they could meet once he left Iraq. But when that time came, Steven told her things had gone wrong.

“Steven told me he had a problem,” she said. His luggage had been impounded en route through Africa and he needed £2,300 (€2,700) to get it released.

She sent the money on the promise that she would be repaid. But more trouble meant more money was needed: €25,000 this time.

Steven let Mrs Cook know that inside the suitcases was $8m he had smuggled out of Iraq. And so the stakes rose in the classic ‘con’ routine that requires the victim to invest more and more money to rescue an increasingly desperate but financially promising situation.

She extended her overdraft, sold shareholdings and drained her retirement savings.

Mrs Cook eventually went to Ghana in a desperate bid to get her money back. She was driven to a lavish house on the outskirts of the capital, Accra. Guarded by rottweilers, it was a gold-plated and marble villa.

Police suspect the property belonged to Fadola, who posed as a diplomat supposedly helping ‘Steven’ during the visit.

She stayed for two nights and it was on her return that Fadola, describing himself as a business associate, came into the picture under his own name, with police alleging that he offered to travel to Britain to pay back Mrs Cook in person. So she supported his visa application.

“And that was another €12,000 for the paperwork,” she said. “I just wanted to get my money back, and then maybe finally meet Steven — who I believed was still in Iraq.”

Fadola’s attempts to seek a British visa were his undoing. It disclosed his true identity to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), which was working with the Ghanian police.

More cases of romance fraud are being discovered. In August last, Philip Hunt (58) threw himself under a train after losing nearly €100,000. He had met a Nigerian girl on the internet, who convinced him to spend the money with promises of starting a life together.

The problem with dating websites has become so acute that many feature stark warnings about fraudsters.

“Most dating websites are full of scammers,” warns Connectingsingles.ie, adding that it takes stringent measures, which include blocking any members located in fraud hotspots such as Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and Ukraine.

“People are vulnerable,” says Anne Marie Cussen of the http://www.itsjustlunch.com agency, which takes the threat so seriously it insists on face-to-face interviews and driving licence or passport identification from new clients.

Another new target of scammers are websites for selling goods online. Actor Richard Wall attempted to sell a BMW convertible online with two leading auto websites and received six highly suspect responses and apparently no genuine ones.

“I replied to one from a guy called Sean, who asked for my bank details without seeing the car! Another wanted to know my mother’s maiden name,” he says.

Another Dublin man, who doesn’t wish to be named, had the same experience selling both a Jaguar and a computer. “A guy with a very Anglo-sounding name like ‘George Witherspoon’, or something, wanted to buy the car as a present for his son and ship it to Canada. He then asked for my bank details so I immediately cut off contact.

“The computer ‘buyer’ wanted me to ship a second hand PC to South Africa as a gift — and of course needed my bank details first.”

Both men felt they would never have fallen for these ‘scams’. Yet they may not have escaped the criminals’ clutches.

Any email response will get your address added to the valuable lists of potential victims that the criminal gangs trade, sell and steal from each other for years to come.

Andy Harbison, director of Grant Thornton’s IT forensic and investigation unit, advises using “disposable” email addresses which can be dumped if you start getting too much junk or scam mail. He also warns that the scammers are getting the upper hand as companies and governments cut back on security in the recession.

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May 27, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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