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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The world is a small place when you are an Internet scammer

I have a pretty public online profile. I’m easily searchable and complete strangers can discover quite a few details about my daily life just by reading my blog posts. I’m an open book, so to speak. This is what makes me such an ideal vehicle for an Internet scam.

Having been in the media for over a decade, I’m pretty good at spotting a scam when it arrives via email or telephone call. That’s why I’ve never been a victim myself. However, last week I was notified that my name and photo had been used in a scam to defraud someone of quite a bit of money. This revelation kind of makes me sick to my stomach.

It’s called a romance scam, and it comes in a number of different forms. Sometimes the fraudster will actually meet their target in person and invest several months in a fake relationship, pretending to fall in love with their victim before taking them for a hefty chunk of change. In this case, the scammer just used my identity to fool someone into giving up the dough. Here’s how it works:

The scammer looks for an ideal personality online – someone who has provided a number of specific details about their family, their lifestyle, their likes and dislikes. Then, adopting the name and photo of that person, they contact someone who appears to be lonely and looking for love. Often the profiles of these victims reveal that they are not exactly fluent in the language of social media. The have limited activity online and they most likely aren’t familiar enough with fake posts to know when they are being scammed.

The scammer has nothing to lose – and could walk away with quite a bit of money, if everything goes in his favour. I say ‘his’ because the stereotypical Internet scammer is a young man from Nigeria. There, the community of people who do this kind of thing for a living has actually grown to sub-culture status. They are known as the 419’ers – or The Yahoo Boys – because 419 is the code for fraud in their country, and their vehicle of choice was originally email. Now they are taking their trade to social media, such as Facebook.

I could have been chosen because I have a Nigerian student living with me. Perhaps a friend of a friend of one of her friends found me on her list of connections. Or maybe it’s just an unhappy coincidence that I was chosen. In any case, it was unlucky for a certain man named Michael from Riverside, California.

Michael reached out to me via Messenger last month to let me know that he had been scammed. Someone contacted him, using my name and photo. They started an online relationship. At some point, after their emotional ‘affair’ became quite intimate and a certain amount of trust had been developed, the scammer went in for the kill – and asked for money. Perhaps he (posing as me) said his mother needed an operation – or he needed money to travel to see his dying father. Pulling on the heartstrings, he manipulated the emotions of his victim until he got what he asked for. Michael immediately wired a rather large sum of money to the scammer, thinking he was helping a woman he had developed feelings for. The scammer took the cash and then likely closed both his bank account and social media account, and disappeared.

Upset that he relationship had ended so abruptly, Michael began an online search and found me. In his message, he revealed exactly what had happened to him. Then, showing that he was still quite upset and confused, he wrote, “by the way, I am not getting in contact with you for the purpose of getting any monies back or to continue any ‘romance’  that I perceived we might have had…”
I felt really awful to hear that my name and image were used to cheat someone out of money. I know from covering these scams in the media that there is really no recourse for the victim. The scammer typically uses a computer at an Internet café – or on a burner phone that cannot be traced. I told Michael that he should report the incident to his local anti-fraud centre, and I told him I would do the same.

He may not get his money back but if the investigation leads to an IP address in another country – like Nigeria – maybe he will at least get some closure on the situation, and stop looking for the ‘woman’ who stole his money.

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