The Sweetheart Scam - The hidden dangers in online dating
Do you really know who you're chatting to?
The Sweetheart Scam
When something seems to good to be true it usually is.
How it works
This scam is the most depressingly heartless fraud around and is most often associated with dating or 'introduction' sites such as Russian or Thai relationship sites or just Lonely Hearts columns.
There are two major variants of the fraud. In one form the advertiser is a genuine person but is only interested in 'gold-digging'. They are purely interested in a succession of lavish gifts and treats. Sometimes the Introduction Websites even act as agents for the provision of these! It is actually possible to meet the advertiser in their home country or a neutral location such as Prague. Some victims have been invited to visit Kiev or Moscow (after paying money to help 'facilitate' the visit of course). When there, the costs build. There are expensive dinners and theatre visits – at the victim's cost of course) often made worse by the fact that they MUST use an expensive designated 24 hour-available chauffeur/interpreter (the real boyfriend?) Sometimes the big request is made during the visit; sometimes many visits are made but at some point BIG money is requested. This may be to buy/rent a property at which the victim can meet them on future visits, the current apartment being totally unsuitable of course. At the very least the victim is supporting the lifestyle of someone with no intention of a continuing relationship. The demands continue until the victim runs out of money.
One reported case stated that the Kiev-based lady involved was known to be in active correspondence with 11 others and had a visitors schedule that "looked like a Eurostar Timetable ". Beware, gold-diggers are gold-diggers the world over but it is a lot easier if you can hide your real identity on the Internet.
The second is by far the worse scam and is operated by both individuals and teams of fraudsters. In this case the advertiser/lonely heart is completely fictitious. Often first attracted by photographs taken from a modelling website, the victim is sucked into an email conversation which becomes more personal as time goes on. Everything is normal for a while as the fraudster builds up confidence but things gradually change. (Sometimes though the approach is very crude with protestations of undying love and a request for money within the first three emails!)
At some point something 'happens' to make the conversation more difficult without a payment. Some of the reasons given include "cannot use/afford the Internet café any more ", "Friend who had been interpreting is moving and need to pay new interpreter ", "computer has broken and can't afford to buy a new one ", "new Internet rules mean that they have to pay more for access. " They can be very inventive and this will only increase with time.
Because the fraudster will have carefully built up the relationship, the victim will often offer to make small payments without being asked! If not, a gentle reminder will be made that the conversation may have to cease unless a little 'assistance' is forthcoming from the victim. If the victim pays, that's it! They're hooked! As the fraud progresses the amounts will increase ( "thrown out of apartment and need deposit for new one ", "had a motoring fine/car repair bill that means won't be in contact for a while because they are broke ", "mother needs an operation " etc.)
The key to this fraud (besides the current availability of complete anonymity on the Internet) is the emotional blackmail employed if the victim takes a step back ( "you don't have any feelings for me ", "I thought we had a real relationship here ", "you're heartless ", "do you want to see me on the street? " etc.)
Another variant often seen in the USA but prevalent in the UK also is the 'escape to the West' scam. Same build-up but the big demand is for costs incurred during a completely fictitious emigration to the victim's home country with a view to relationship/marriage. This involves payments (by Western Union
! See telegraphic transfer section of this guide) for American/British/Russian/Thai/Ukrainian visas/permits/documents etc. as well as the travel tickets of course. If the victim is completely taken-in, the coup-de-grace is a call from the airport because of some unforeseen problem that only money will solve to get them out of the country. They never get on the plane but the money has gone! Of course since there is no actual contact prior to the expected arrival in the victim's home country this is a scam that could be conducted using an entirely fictitious personality and identity.
This is far and away the most common scam and is often called the Visa and Travel Agent
scam because at some point a quote is sent by a Travel Agency listing the travel costs and asking for payment. This is typically just under $1000 in Russia.
Nigerian dating scam
A variation uses the same principles but the actual 'sting' is different. Although known as the Nigerian Dating Scam it is also often simply referred to as a Romance Scam and has been initiated from almost anywhere in Western Africa.
Almost always using attractive photos from agencies and false identities the build-up is the same. (It has been reported that 90% of the photos used in this scam are taken from the focushawaii model site
Needless to say, the assumed nationality is very rarely Nigerian but some other nationality 'working in another country' (e.g. American working in Spain). Once trust is built the scam converts into the 'Nigerian advance payment' Scam. The fraudster claims to be paid by their employer via Money Order or cheque and for some inventive reason ( "Difficult for an American in Spain to open an account purely to draw cash etc. ") needs to deposit these funds in the account of a trusted person in the UK. Who more trusted than their dear correspondent? They are asked to deposit a sizeable cheque in the victim's own account and to send money by Western Union
(see Telegraphic Transfer section
for why you shouldn't do this!) keeping some of the money for their troubles. A cheque or Money Order is sent, the funds 'clear' (See the Overpayment or Advance Payment Scam
section to see how this works) and the victim duly forwards the bulk of the money by Western Union
keeping a small amount for their efforts. In due course (normally a few weeks later) the cheque is returned by the ISSUING bank as lost/stolen/invalid/forged and the full cheque amount is debited from the victim's account. The sweetheart then breaks contact and is never heard of again. This is hardly difficult when they never existed as a real person in the first place.
How to spot it
They will ask for your money!
The most insidious part of this scam is that it depends on the victim's feelings and honour. It could all be genuine but look out for the tell-tale signs. Look out for the same photo (under a different name) or contact details on other sites. Look for the same photo on model sites especially focushawaii.com
as above. Try responding to the same advert from two different email addresses under different names and see if the responses seem genuine (or even from the same person/address. Sometimes there are teams working these scams.) Put their details into one of the sites hosting lists of scammers addresses or aliases. Try to get proof of identity. Try to find out the IP addresses they are using
and see if they match up with the country they are supposed to be in! There are sites out there that can help with the IP address
. (If you don't understand this bit just ask a techie friend!)
Ask yourself whether the grammar matches the alleged nationality. See the Spotting Scam Emails section
for some other tips on how to spot a scammer early.
Though it is unlikely to happen immediately and could be for any number of possible reasons, they will at some point ask for your financial help and try to persuade you to send money via (untraceable) telegraphic transfer such as Western Union
. If you send money for any reason, get receipts (tell them it's for tax purposes) and proofs of anything requested/demanded. Above all, ask yourself if this is real before sending money. A real relationship would not include one-sided requests like this.
Police advise to only use reputable sites with a decent credible track-record and to verify identification at an early stage. A number of sites offer third-party introductions and will vouch for their introductions.
Always remember the Internet's ability to create Identities and personalities completely different from real-life! One alleged 29-year old Russian blonde single female was recently found to be a bald 50-year old German male with dozens of other fictitious female identities! He was taking money on behalf of all of his identities. Take care!
- Here is a case study. Note how the 'romance' blossoms in only three emails and the request for funds to visit the USA. Note also the money transfer via Western Union. The photographs are of a popular Russian television actress.
- Another case from the Russian Detective website. Note the TWO standard responses (With her personal description as being a natural brunette when the contact photos are of a blonde) then the change of email address. Has the contact been passed on to another part of the team of scammers for continuation?
- Here is an example of an extreme threat if the 'relationship' is broken!
- There is an example in a San Diego newspaper showing that far from all of these scammers are Russian. An American was recently convicted and made to return over $700,000 to victims of a series of scams. (This link may not work in some browsers so enter
http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/metro/20040623-9999-1m23brides.html into your browser if it does not.)
- In one celebrated case an Australian appealed directly to President Putin of Russia - and action was taken!