Tuesday, January 24, 2012

love hurts - how online romance scams suck you in, and how to fight back

the new halifax magazine dropped through my mail box this morning. as i mentioned before, the cover story is aly thomson's piece on atlantic cirque celebrating its 10th anniversary with Decade, an amazing show running at the end of february.

i'm writing the script for it and stopped by the burnside HQ last weekend to meet more of the cast and tinker with matching the words to the people, the music and the action. great fun - buy your tickets now.

halifax also has my article on rob rogers, a halifax man who fell victim to an amazingly complex online romance scam. after he realized he'd been had, he didn't just pretend it had never happened - he turned himself into an online crusader with romancescams.org, thwarting hustlers and helping victims realize they're victims and extract themselves from terrible situations.

it was a fascinating glimpse into the globalized world of internet shakedowns. yeah, we can all spot the nigerian bankers and laugh, but the louder you laugh at them, the less likely you are to detect the subtler scammers reaching into your virtual pocket.

it's a great edition of halifax - buy it now. or subscribe.

here's my piece:

Love Bites

By Jon Tattrie
Standing in the Halifax airport with a handful of flowers and a heart full of hope, Rob Rogers watched passenger after passenger walk past him into waiting arms, hugs and laughter, keeping his eyes peeled for his wife Rams. After a whirlwind romance following a chance meeting online, the 47-year-old businessman married the Ghanaian woman, and today was to be the first time they met in person.

In the last few months, Rogers had gotten to know Rams’s sister - who worried about this strange Canadian’s sudden interest in her widowed sibling – her mother, the family pastor, neighbours and women from Rams’s church. Rogers was just out of a relationship and not looking for love, but when it found him, he decided he was ready to start again.

Rams didn’t get off the plane. Rogers eventually threw the flowers in the trash and went home. He was worried about Rams – but there was another, darker concern emerging. He didn’t hear from her for two full days – and then she instant messaged him to say she was still stuck in Africa and needed to pay an $8,000 declaration fee.

Rogers googled “declaration fees from Ghana” and found not information about African bureaucracy, but Romancescams.org. That’s when Rogers began his transformation from prey for online scammers into a predator of online scammers.

“There’s usually more than one character involved,” he says today in his Halifax home. “[Romance Scams] used to joke that I must have had the supervisor of scammers, because my story was so complex.”

After recovering from the shock of learning his wife was a fictional character with a fake family played by a cast of Ghanaian charlatans, Rogers became a peer counselor for Romance Scams (RS) and dedicated much of his free time to outwitting the scammers and rescuing other victims. Rogers lost $14,000. Others have lost $500,000

“They work in groups of six to eight young men. Two of them do nothing but send emails all day to any site where there’s any social contact. If you respond to that email, you’re handed over to other members of the group. They google you to research you, and fill in the blanks with questions to create a character that’s specific to your ideas and your dreams,” he says. 

Rogers is interrupted by a visitor to the RS chat room. It’s a man from Scotland who is having the first inklings something is wrong with his romance. Over the next hour, the chat room gets visitors from Halifax, Hong Kong, the U.S. and Vietnam. Online hustling is a global enterprise.

“What binds us all together at this site is the damage to our hearts and trust. It’s nothing to do with the money,” Rogers says. “It’s like having a death in the family, but there’s no funeral for closure.”

In retrospect, he can see red flags he walked right by.

“I was talking to her and her sister online through IM one night and all of a sudden they both started talking to me in Cantonese,” he says. Then, he believed it was a weird wire crossing on the internet. Now he knows the “women” were young men in a tiny room in Ghana trying to keep track of which mark they were working.

Another flag is rabid persistency. If someone you’ve just met swiftly falls in love with you and just as swiftly comes into financial trouble and needs you to wire them money, you’re being taken. It might be a Ghanaian scammer or it might be a manipulative person in Bedford – either way, walk away.

“If they’ve never met you before and you’re the only person on Earth who can help them with their money situation, they’re a scammer,” Rogers says.

He urges people with suspicions about their relationships to contact RS. They can trace email. If your lover is in Chicago, but the email comes from Nigeria, you’ve got a problem. The site has a quiz, a list of red flags and hot scams. If you think you’re being duped, you probably are.

The first step is to cut off all contact – block their emails, ignore their instant messages, cancel outstanding transfers of money and report the scammer to the site they contacted you on. If you don’t, a spiteful scammer might send you a virus that wrecks your computer.

If it’s a family member you’re worried about, send them links to scam-busting websites. But be prepared to be ignored – a heart in full gallop is not easily reined in. Rogers is currently working with a man whose brother is convinced he is married to a Ghanaian woman. His scammers are growing bolder and more ludicrous. The brother recently paid for a dowry that included a white goat, a black goat, a sewing machine and a suitcase large enough to hold the goats and sewing machine.

“They don’t care what your situation is. They’ll ask you point blank to sell your house and send them the money,” Rogers says.

The “recently married” man has finally agreed to stop sending money, but still doesn’t believe it was all a lie.

Corp. Lise Hamel, a fraud expert with the RCMP in Halifax, says scammers are relentless, intelligent and ruthless.

“First of all, you never wire money to anyone you haven’t met,” she says. “That’s a red flag right there.”
Talk to friends and family about your situation and look at the RCMP’s anti-fraud site (antifraudcentre.ca) or the Halifax Regional Police page of scams (halifax.ca/Police/Fraud). Hamel says romance scammers often make a sideline profit by calling marks posing as their bank. After you answer a few security questions, they tell you about a new offer, and disconnect. The scammers now have access to your bank account.

Hamel says education can armour you against the attack of the scammers.  
Romancescams.org has helped 50,000 victims, reported 5,500 scammers and worked relentlessly to outwit the scammers since 2005. Its victims have collectively lost $14 million, meaning the scammers are strongly motivated to keep upping their game, targeting men and women of all ages.
Rogers relishes his role as online defender, though the endless stream of broken-hearted victims takes its toll. The site also offers some consolation, though.

“We’ve actually had a few people who have met through our site and gotten married. They know they’re not getting scammers,” he says with a laugh. 
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