We knew it, right? Scam money goes to international organised crime syndicates. Well, to be truthful, that’s what we suspected, but did not have enough information as a lay-people to really know it for sure. Now we do, after a lengthy expose on Australian ABC’s 4 Corners program called Meet the Scammers, Mon 11 Feb 2019, by journalist Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop.
As well as information about the network behind an organised crime king-pin arrested in Canada in 2014, the program talks in depth to some ‘game boys’, some “entry level criminals” in Ghana, according to a Ghanaian police official about how and why they scam.
What is interesting about these ‘café boys’ is the ease with which they talk about their ‘business’ of scamming and how they justify scamming as a legitimate way to make a living and get ahead. They also refer to the colonisation of West Africa that took place in their great-great grandfather’s time, and how taking money from westerners is payback for this.
Professor Monica Whitty, now at Melbourne University, describes scammers as “masters of manipulation” and the reporter shows sites which enable emerging scammers to learn the trade by buying proven scripts, getting documents or images photoshopped, acquiring bank accounts, getting help from those who have already proven it works. This seeking for ‘best practice’ is mentioned several times, and seems to happen at the lowest and highest levels for everyone’s mutual benefit. That’s everyone in the scamming business, not their ‘clients’ [ie, victims].
Identity theft and the setting up of fake online profiles based on stolen photos is the basis of these scams. Even gender is not sacrosanct, with these young black ‘game boys’ portraying themselves as both men and women, and talking openly about online sex with both men and women ‘clients’.
One scary point the expose reveals is how romance scams are easily and often linked to money laundering and drug mules, showing several victims of these. This is where organised crime really comes into play, and a case with a criminal based at Villawood detention centre in 2014 is depicted. The more recent arrests at Villawood Detention Centre, (see also my previous blog on this) was also mentioned.
Scamming, according to Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan of the Australian Federal Police is happening on an “industrial… global scale”, and figures of $12 Billion over 5 years was cited by an American commentator. That’s US Dollars! Everyone knows though that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
On the plus side is the fact that some arrests have happened, that finally the police internationally are seeing how big this is and how widely it is connected and are finally beginning to doing something about it.
As usual the devastation for victims is talked about, but nothing
mentioned about the support scam victims need after the event.
One of the people profiled in the program is Colonel Bryan Denny (Ret.), who’s photo has been used on social media and dating sites for years. He, together with Kathy Waters, who’smother was a scam victim and have set up a support group http://www.advocatingforu.com/ and are seeking to change the 230 Communications Decency Act of 1996 to better combat identity theft in America. To support them, sign their petition here.
Well done to victims Chyrel Muzic and Peter Strand for also talking out about their scam stories. We need more victims to speak out.
Congratualtions Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop on a great program.
For those of us who have experienced scams, and the shame
that comes with this, holiday periods with family and friends can be very
For myself, at times like this when I am in a social situation, even with family, it is easy to just sit in the corner and not communicate and connect with others. This is because underneath it all, I feel broken, unworthy, unlovable. I think I am not worthy of being a friend to anyone, so I am likely to be stand-offish and not initiate any conversations or connections. Others may find me as reserved, and interpret that as me thinking I am superior. Underneath it all, how can I trust others to like me or be real with me when inside I do not trust myself, or like myself for what I have done.
This is how shame operates, by isolating us and shutting us down. We think we avoid pain, embarrassment, and blame by keeping what has happened to us a secret. Unfortunately we cannot only keep this one thing secret. It leaches into other parts of us, making it difficult to share other parts of ourselves as well. The end result is to further isolate us into ourselves and prevent the development of supportive and intimate friendships/relationships.
The one thing that I found was an antidote to shame was when I began to speak out publicly about the scam I experienced. When I decided to speak out I was able to say to myself “I have made a mistake, and to make mistakes is human. We are allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them.” It meant I was vulnerable, sharing my ‘mistake’ with the world letting everyone know I was not the perfect person I might wish others to see me as. But it was only a mistake. This gave me the strength to face up to what had happened. Each time I spoke out I gained strength, I regained my self-respect, because I was being true to myself and what had happened. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes in life.
“People cope differently from this experience: some are angry, some are depressed, some talk of suicide, while others spend every waking hour trying to figure out how they were scammed and try to prevent it happening to others.”
Love Hurts: the costly reality of online romance fraud, The Conversation 11 December 2014
The mistake I own up to was that I did not see the lies being told by the scammer., I believed him. Research shows that 60% of the time, people cannot detect lies, so really, I was with a lot of others in the human pool! Soit raises the question, why do we feel so much shame from this one mistake, when it can happen to so many of us?
When we are scammed we think it is just us and the scammer, in our ‘special’ relationship and we believe them. The truth is it is not a one-on-one situation. Scammers often have a team of people beside them. You might meet other team members as the scammer’s child, friend, lawyer or other official, or a nurse or doctor after a car crash. You might not realise that the person you speak to on the phone or web is not the same person who is texting you or emailing you.
It is really a one against many situation, and yet we are so ashamed that we did not see it. How could we? It should not be shamefulto not realise we a dealing with a business behemoth, that the power differential is gigantic. One caring, loving and naïve person against a team of skilled and deliberate fraudsters. We got caught by their lies and in their manipulations, and gave our money. If we had been rational, we would not have done this. Yet ‘society’, many people who do not know the truth of what happens, blame us, the victim, for not suspecting the lies, for not being able to stay rational in the face of skilled and deliberate emotional manipulation.
The victim blaming must stop. It does not respect the truth
of what happens in scams and damages and traumatises people with shame. It is
more an indication that people want to separate themselves from the possibility
that they could also be caught in a scam and make out it could/would not happen
to them. It is a defence mechanism by those yet to be caught in scams.
Trivialising scam victims by assuming they are just lonely
old women or men is another way scams are misrepresented. Anyone can get caught in them…
In our holiday social gatherings there should be space to be
real with each other, admit our mistakes, and still be loved for the unique
individuals that we are. But despite the supposed good wishes of the season we
are not there yet for romance scam victims.
I encourage all victims feeling shame to find someone they can trust to tell of their mistake. Tell them about what you have learn from this blog, that there is more to scams than they think. This can build understanding of how scams really work, and maybe by this time next year things will be improved.
Best wishes of the season, and wishing you strength, honesty
and healing in the year ahead.
On Friday 14th September it was reported that some scammers who were living in Villawood Detention Centre had beenarrested.
Seven people, male and females have been arrested for Identity Fraud, Romance Scams, business email scams and fraudulent sale of goods, with income from the frauds of over AUS$3m. All 7 people arrested are either Nigerian or Nigerian dual nationals.
The money has been sent on to Nigeria and is unlikely to be recovered. The press coverage has sensationalised the fact that these people had over 16 mobile phones and additional SIM cards between them, whilst living in a Detention Centre.
A number of observations can be made:
1. It is great to see some local arrests for these scams, as scams are mostly instigated from overseas and the police do not have jurisdiction to address the criminal nature of the fraud. These arrests mean that some of the reports from victims that are being made to sites like ACORN and Scamwatch are being followed up on. This is the first real evidence we have seen that police are taking reports seriously and checking them out, and often victims say that they feel their reports are useless and seem to fall into a black hole. Unfortunately, we are still not able to see many police actions where the perpetrators reside overseas.
2. Even though the arrests are within Australia, these are Nigerian people. I know that scams that are being run out of Malaysia often also involve Nigerians. I do not want to disparage all Nigerians – there are ‘baddies’ in every culture – but I am very wary of the Nigerian diaspora, the spread of Nigerians with criminal intent into different countries, and the ability of these people to then use the scam skills they may have learned back home in Nigeria to continue to target ways to make easy money from vulnerable others. These arrests show that this is happening.
3. Over the years of talking to victims, a number have said to me that the phones being used to call them have had accounts within Australia. I had no way to understand this, and had been skeptical of their assertions. I thought it was just the ability to buy phone numbers anywhere in the world. I admit I was wrong. These arrests show that it is quite possible that local phone numbers and connections were used by scammers who are within Australia, maybe even this group of 7 that have been arrested.
4. These arrests confirm that these scams are being undertaken by a team of people, a syndicate. It is not just one lone scammer who has targeted a vulnerable person, but it is deliberate criminal behavior by a team of perpetrators targeting multiple individuals and business victims.
5. The scammers only had phones, though 16 of them. It shows how much can be done with the smallest of devices. I would also say that it shows a high level of sophistication, particularly with the ability to “spoof” emails to make fake requests for fund transfer look legitimate to businesses. No wonder the subsequent news/media reports are highlighting the need for businesses to have a two-step verification of any changes to fund transfer details.
6. I have commented on the increasing IT sophistication of scammers, and mentioned hacking in my previous posts. Though we don’t know the full details of this case, the fact that the scammers can ‘spoof’ emails, and steal identities shows that the IT skills they are using are at the highest level. Police skills are needed to match this level of activity and counter any other local scammers.
7. Though my focus has been predominately on romance scams, the fact that this team was engaged in Identity Fraud, Romance Scams, business email scams and sale of goods shows that scammers are diversified in their approach and their capability. Dr Cassandra Cross has highlighted in her articles that scammers can tailor the scam to the victim, and can sometimes change the nature of the scam within a scam. She reminds us that to try and create scam warning messages based on single scam story-lines will be ineffectual and that we need more concise messaging such as to not to send money under any circumstances.
8. Again we are reminded that these people will use whatever techniques work to manipulate people into parting with their money. What they are doing is unconscionable, involves lying and psychological manipulation as well as being criminal fraud.
I look forward to reading more about this case as it unfolds.
A number of interesting articles/pieces came my way recently, especially the piece on the number of fake Facebook accounts being found. Even when they are removed from Facebook, they are replaced by others… I also watched a TED talk on how to spot liars, get quoted in an article about Gumtree scams, add a warning about phishing and about scam promises to get your money back.
Recently journalists at the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission), our national TV and Radio network, broke a story abouthundreds of fake Facebook accounts linked to ‘Texas’, a town of 900 people in Queensland, Australia.
Of the 500 fake accounts they identified, they identified 448 of these as having suspicious signals. Similar anomalous accounts can also be found for our towns of “Miami (Queensland), Virginia (Queensland) and Toronto (New South Wales).” They think it is because scammers are trying to use North American locations, but the Australian city links come up first. It’s a case of mistaken location: Continue reading Fake Friends, Liars and Gumtree scams
I woke up with an insight the other night. I was part of a group brainstorming with Consumer Affairs Victoria. They want to do something about romance scams and were looking at intervention points. The insight I had is that one of the biggest resources for prevention messages is scam victims, yet it is virtually untapped. I’ve been saying for some time that more needs to be done for romance scam victims. There is currently very little done for or with them. Yet they have great stories to tell.
They are encouraged to report their scam to ScamWatch or ACORN, and they might get an automated response back with no identifying name, but to the victim, there is very little indication of anything else happening. They are left alone to deal with the grief, the shame, and the often devastating financial circumstances. They suffer through depression, low self esteem, lack of self worth, as well as sometimes suicidal thoughts and actions. I know this from personal experience, and from the many contacts I have with victims who tell me this, saying they are still in this state even many years after they have been scammed. Continue reading Victim stories as a prevention strategy
Yesterday I received an email from a person on my mailing list with a message saying they had found my photo in a scammers profile. Oh what joy! My picture on a scam site under the name of Elizabeth Edwin.
(See Updates for this mystery at the bottom of this post)
This notification led me on a voyage of discovery as I followed the mystery down a number of paths.
Firstly I contacted the site for female fake profiles – https://www.stop-scammers.com/ to let them know that the photo was of me. It was a photo taken of me by the Herald Sun in July 2015 that I also use on my Media Presence page. I received an automated email back, but it will be interesting to see what they say about this. Names of the real people behind the photos is not divulged on the site that I could see. This site has thousands of stolen photos and fake profiles with other supporting information about scammer activity. I only used the free service, which is a bit limited, but it looks like a comprehensive site. Continue reading A stolen photo mystery
Whenever I speak publicly about being scammed there is often either an innuendo or a direct attribution that because I have been lonely I am likely to be vulnerable to a scam. For ‘lonely’ translate to ‘faulty individual’. Thus the formula follows, in their minds: I am not lonely, therefore I am not ‘scam-able’. I reject the formula, but more on that later. Now there is research which has looked specifically at susceptibility to cybercrime. Low and behold “In total, 60% of the population surveyed presented as being in the higher risk categories for susceptibility to cybercrime.”[i] So, for a great many people, it could happen to them.
Undertaken by Lee Hadlinton and Sally Chivers, and published in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice[i], this research looks at susceptibility to cybercrime levels through the lenses of information security awareness, trait impulsivity, and cross references these with age and employment factors. Continue reading Susceptible to scams? 66 percent are..
In the past years, since Rosie Beatty became Australian of the Year, there has been much emphasis on Domestic Violence and the toll this takes on many women, as well as programs to combat this. Regular readers of this blog will know that I see Romance Scams as a form of abuse, but one that in comparison gets very little support or acknowledgement, except when the increasingly disastrous financial figures are published. So how are these forms of abuse similar and different? Analysis has begun on this topic by Dr Cassandra Cross and her colleagues. Continue reading Is the psychological abuse in domestic violence similar in scams?
I recently gave a talk to a local PROBUS Club (for over 55s who are retired), about my experience of being scammed. I’m getting better at doing these talks, but still am taken aback by some of the questions. The one that most niggled this day was if I had been single for much of my life.
“Ah!” He said, when I replied positively to this. In his mind I knew he had now put me in the box of “lonely, therefore scam- able”. I wanted to scream, because I knew he was also making the leap to “I’m not lonely, therefore it won’t happen to me”. They all wanted to believe “it won’t happen to me”. All 90 of them listening to my talk on how I was scammed. It was similar to those other questions which implied that I was gullible or stupid to fall for a scam.Continue reading Does Lonely mean Ripe for a Scam
I continue to explore what causes the ‘altered state’ that is created when we are caught in a romance scam. Its not only others who wonder “how could she do it?” Victims also wonder about what they have done and why, even well after they have realised they have been scammed.
I think one of the culprits is Oxytocin, the so called Love Hormone. According to Wikipedia:
Oxytocin is a peptide hormone and neuropeptide. Oxytocin is normally produced by the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary.
All of what he suggests as positive responses to singing together can also be attributed to victim behavior during a scam. Further reading on oxytocin cites greater generosity and co-operation, heightened altruism and reduced anxiety as ‘pro-social’ behaviors linked with higher levels of oxytocin.
I know from experience that when inside a scam, we are committed to our loved one/scammer, and will do whatever it takes to support or rescue them from the many sorts of trouble they are in. Afterwards we wonder what happened, why we didn’t see what was going on, why we rejected warnings from friends, and stepped over any inconsistencies or red flags that there were. We don’t understand what happened even when looking back on it. Perhaps because the rational part of our brain was dis-engaged at the time. Instead our brain was immersed in the fog of oxytocin. Afterwards we mostly blame ourselves for what happened and loose trust in ourselves. After all, we actively gave the money. Or did we?
What this look at the pro-social affects of oxytocin reveals is that it is likely there are deliberate goals behind the building of the romance part of the scam. In developing the love within the relationship, the ‘love hormone’ is triggered and all of the pro-social affects are engaged:
empathy with the plight of the scammer
enhanced trust of them when they say they will give all the money back, and will be there soon
reduced anxiety and cooperation with what they ask us to do and what they say is the reason for things
altruism – sacrificing ourselves financially for our loved one
generosity, yes, we will give everything we have
encouraging us to take risks, and not see possible dangers or implications the relationship might have. Even if it’s damaging. Even if it’s toxic. (1)
If the scammer can engage the victim in cybersex, this is even more enhanced, so some of the research says. (2) Even more oxytocin induced ‘bonding’ occurs. I know that from experience too.
As well as the grief, shame, despair and financial struggle that goes on after a scam, in the periods when we are alone with ourselves, we wonder what happened, why did we do it. It is a great mystery even to those of us who have been in it.
We need to shift out thinking to emphasise that the romance aspect is a deliberate and critical foundation to the scam, in order to generate the oxytocin that lets scammers take control of us. Once the oxytocin is generated scammers are free to use all of the pro-social effects of oxytocin to have us part with our money. Syndicates of scammers have tried and tested which words and mechanisms lead to the best results, causing us to fall in love more easily, deliberately, so they can control us.
Yes, perhaps part of us wanted to fall in love. But that’s separate from the manipulation of that state and the deliberate abuse of consequences by someone else. That abuse is not OK. We understand abuse of power when it is say, between a teacher and a student. This is another form of active abuse of power. Its emotional manipulation as the ultimate power game, the winner of the game taking all the money, literally.
(1) Oxytocin, the Love and Happiness Hormone December 22, 2017 in Psychology
(2) Social effects of oxytocin in humans: context and person matter
Jennifer A. Bartz1*, Jamil Zaki2*, Niall Bolger3 and Kevin N. Ochsner3
1 Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Seaver Autism Center, Department of Psychiatry, New York, New York, 10029, USA
2 Harvard University, Department of Psychology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138, USA