Anatomy of A Romance Scam — April 21, 2008

The romance scam is different from other “419” scams in that it preys on a victim’s kindness and openness, not their greed. This type of scam relies on creating a strong emotional bond and tie that, in retrospect, very often bypasses logical thought and common sense. The romance scam begins usually with personal ads placed on internet dating services. A photograph of an attractive person, very often stolen from a modeling website, is used. However, more and more photographs of prior victims (or ordinary people like you and me) are being used. Profiles include descriptions designed to attract the targeted audience. The scammer is often a widower or widow whose spouse died tragically leaving him or her alone with one or more children. The scammer’s parents are both dead and rarely do they have a sibling that resides in their home country. The text of the ad is often poorly written but not so much that an uninformed victim wouldn’t think it was more than an individual who doesn’t have good writing skills or some sort of dyslexia or other learning disability. Since we all have seemed to relax the “rules” we were taught with respect to grammar, spelling, etc., for the acronyms and shorthand of the Internet, most would not necessarily judge an individual profile by the poor grammar and spelling.


Scammers post highly scripted fake profiles on multiple dating sites. I know of only three dating sites online who are and strive to stay scammer free. Other than these, there is not another dating site online that does not contain active fake profiles. Scammers target every type of dating site. A profile can be amended to fit any niche in the market. Most scammers are men and will pose as either gender in order to con their victim. The scammer’s fake profile will show a location close to the victim so that you or I believe we are beginning to get to know someone we can eventually meet face to face. The initial concern of the scammer in this type of scam is that the potential victim is willing and ready to open his or her heart.


Once contact is made through a dating site, the scammer will usually attempt to move the victim to an instant messenger (“IM”) client rather quickly. The most common one used is Yahoo Messenger (thus, the term “yahoo yahoo” boys). There might be an exchange of one or two emails to the victim’s email address but it is more likely that the scammer will continue writing the victim back and forth on the dating service until he can successfully convince the victim to install IM so they can chat. Once chatting begins, the scammer quickly begins to establish emotional intimacy with the victim. Sex is rarely discussed. Instead, chivalrous talk and endearing names are used. Statements are made about how the relationship must have been pre-ordained and/or how the scammer has finally found that one true love of his or her life after searching fruitlessly for so long. Sincere interest is shown by the questions asked. Often quick declarations of love and/or affection are made as well as the strong desire to be physically present in the victim’s life. Frequent and constant contact is made.


Usually after the first or second contact (if not before), the scammer who is some sort of entrepreneur, engineer, or has what most of us consider a high profile occupation which requires travel, will advise the victim that he or she must travel overseas (usually to a country in West Africa – Nigeria, for the most part, but Ghana has become a scam hotspot as well) for business. The scammer will tell the victim that he or she will be away from a few weeks to a few months and so the face to face meeting must wait. At this point, the scammer has, at the very least, ensured the victim’s interest in waiting for his or her return. Once the scammer arrives in Nigeria (for example), he or she will send a phone number so that the parties can stay in touch, continue chatting through IM, declaring committed love to the point of proposing marriage, obtain the victim’s phone number and make calls frequently to the victim to further solidify the emotional connection and attachment, ask for an address and send gifts with romantic notes (all purchased with stolen or fraudulent credit or debit cards). Along with all this attention, the victim receives romantic poetry, letters full of tender and charming rhetoric designed to continue creating the dream of a “perfect” lover and friend. In addition, photos are exchanged, each party sharing the images of themselves and the people most important in his/her life. All of this is created with the unknowing help of the victim and designed according to the answers we give to the questions the scammer asks. To the victim’s mind and heart, he or she has finally met the most thoughtful, supportive, considerate, loving and wonderful man or woman in the world. To each victim’s way of thinking and feeling, it is frequently the end to a very long and difficult search and quest to find love.


After the relationship is solidified in the scammer’s mind and he or she is fairly certain that a victim can be controlled through the feelings of love and care that have been established, the money part of the scam occurs. This person that one loves is still “stuck” in a foreign country and can’t wait to get on that plane to finally come home and spend “in real life” time with the true love of their dreams – their future husband or wife. THEN, something terrible, traumatic or catastrophic happens. Some or all of the following stories have been used:


  • The scammer or his/her child falls seriously ill or is seriously injured in a car crash while in Nigeria and needs urgent medical attention for his or her or the child’s life to be saved. The victim is contacted by a hospital administrator because the patient is in a coma or unconscious. They will inform the victim that they found a notebook in baggage which has listed the victim as next of kin and as such the victim needs to pay for medical treatment. Without this medical attention, the patient is sure to die.
  • The scammer simply asks his victim to lend money to be able to purchase a ticket or to be able to cover departure tax always promising to repay the money once they are finally together. The scammer may claim that he or she has been mugged on the way to the airport and/or has lost his/her wallet.
  • The scammer claims to have an unpaid hotel bill and that he/she is being held hostage by the hotel manager or their passports or other documents have been confiscated. The scammer will desperately plead for money to settle the hotel bill promising to repay the money when the two finally meet.
  • Sometimes a scammer will ask the victim to open a bank account in the victim’s name or to cede control of an existing account so that the scammer or his agent can deposit a large check. The most common excuse is that the scammer wants to start a business to guarantee their future financial status but the authorities in the West African country will not allow them to leave with the check. Again, the victim becomes a potential suspect in money laundering and/or an accomplice in criminal theft.
  • Scammers frequently ask victims to reship goods for them to Nigeria. This is because many businesses in the world will not ship goods directly to Nigeria until full payment is received by their banks. A credit card in the hands of a Nigerian scammer is virtually worthless because no merchant will agree to send goods to Nigeria, but by using his/her victim’s address (normally in the United States or western Europe), he/she is able to order huge amounts of goods using the stolen credit cards. The scammer then arranges for either the victim or an associate to pick them up the following day and ship them to the scammer in Nigeria where they will be sold. When the credit card company fails to honor the payment, the merchant pursues the victim for the goods or the money. The victim becomes responsible for the bill because the goods were delivered to his or her address.
  • Eastern European scammers tend to use the guise of mail order bride agencies to scam their victims. Like their West African counterparts, the lady in question is incredibly attractive and a rapport is quickly established and the lady declares the victim to be her dream partner. Before long, there is a desire to meet to test compatibility but the victim needs to pay for her passport, visa and ticket before she can come over to be with him. Needless to say, even after giving the money, she will never materialize and the victim is left with an empty wallet and an aching heart.
  • Becoming more common is a variation of the scam –  some scammers will ask a victim to take cash advances on credit cards, then offer to pay off the balances. Of course the victim is asked to give out credit card and security information. The scammer will sometimes pay on the card, but not the entire balance, so the victim will accrue a very high interest rate on the remaining balance and advance.
  • Most common of all is that a scammer will tell the victim that they have received payment from their employer in the form of checks, money orders or another financial instrument but cannot cash the item because the bank will not honor a instrument of this type drawn on an account in a foreign country. The scammer who has by now formed a trust relationship with the victim will ask their “love one” to do a favor for them, receive the instruments, deposit them, obtain all or part of the cash (keeping some to help the “new spouse’s” household) and wire the remainder via Western Union. None of these financial documents are valid. All are fraudulent. When an item comes back unpaid, the victim is held responsible for repaying every dollar or face possible arrest for passing bad checks and fraud.

The romance scammer will keep trying to get as much money as possible from a victim until the victim can no longer afford to send money or until the victim realizes that their “loved one” has been running a con and is never going to come. More often lately, the way a victim realizes that the “love of his or her life” is a dream turned nightmare is to have law enforcement arrive at their home or place of business to question and possibly arrest them for any number of crimes, including felony fraud and money laundering. We have had several members in the past that have been arrested, taken to jail handcuffed and then charged with a felony. Recently, after a scam show was done by Oprah Winfrey, several victims who were facing prison time contacted our group and have been matched with experts to help them. I do not believe any one of these victims had any idea that they were in the middle of a scam until the moment of arrest.


In whatever way a victim arrives at the moment of “knowing” that this relationship has been anything but real, it is a terrible shock. Members join and lurk for awhile sometimes trying to assimilate what has happened in some way to make it have sense to them. It doesn’t. The loss of this relationship which for many has lasted from several months to several years is no different in how it feels to have a loved one die. The grief is overwhelming as is the hurt and dismay. There is utter disbelief. A new member will refuse to cut off all contact trying to hold onto the dream believing until the very last. Once the proof and realization hits and denial must be put away, the victim is left destitute – totally crushed from the inside out emotionally, psychologically and sometimes physically and then for many, financially. Many of our members have lost their homes, savings, jobs, retirement plans, maxxed out credit cards, now owe thousands of dollars in loans taken out to help their loved one get out of trouble and be able to come home or money owed because checks sent by the scammer have finally been returned to the bank in which they were deposited. The devastation financially to not only Americans but those in other western countries is horrendous and only a few will ever report the true monetary losses they have suffered. Even when the shock wears off, it is a long road to healing and many never admit what happened to them. They are too humiliated and embarrassed to admit it to any friend or family member though often are forced to because they now need financial help or will need to move in with a relative or friend to avoid homelessness.


It is a huge misconception that people who fall victim to this crime are lonely, fat, ugly, desperate or any of the many things we tell ourselves to feel better and assure ourselves that it could never happen to any of us. It can and does every day. It is a hidden, dirty little secret we often keep to avoid being made to feel even more ignorant and stupid for becoming involved and having been taken advantage of in this manner. I can assure you this crime crosses every type of line we in civilized society have created. There is no one who is immune to being approached and drawn in if he or she is open to the idea of finding love and a relationship.


Next … taking time to heal and recover….

Copyright by DianeG (Retired) 

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