Lonely Hearts Club scam

MANILA, PhilippinesJoanna* can no longer recall his name but she still remembers waiting for him at the airport and the sinking feeling of realizing that he was not coming.

“I felt so stupid. I should have known better,” said Joanna* who is speaking about the incident for the first time – months after it had happened.

She met him on the online dating site OkCupid. He was an American businessman based in Japan. She was a working single mother who wanted to widen her dating pool. Online dating was a convenient and practical way to meet men. She had to wade through the usual profiles of men looking only for sex, but she had other friends who had met their husbands online and it made her hopeful.

They were not in a relationship but they had been texting constantly for weeks when he said he was going to Cebu for some kind of volunteer work and proposed a side trip to Manila. He wanted to meet Joanna in person. She wanted to get to know him better and see if there was a possibility to take it to the next level.

He sent Joanna a copy of his booking reservation at the Marriott Hotel and Joanna was made to believe that they were both counting the days until they would meet.

It had not occurred to Joanna that she was the target of a romance scam also known as “confidence fraud.

Ruth Grover, a UK resident, runs ScamHaters, a crime watch website that posts online profiles of would-be scammers to warn potential victims. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Grover said that she had noted that women in the Philippines were emerging to be prime targets for scammers but could not pinpoint the reason why.

The unfolding of a scam

When he had supposedly arrived in Cebu, he messaged Joanna constantly and told her how much he was looking forward to meeting her in Manila. The anticipation was mounting.

A few hours before his scheduled arrival, he called her in a panic.

He couldn’t board the plane and didn’t have enough cash to buy another plane ticket. He had called his mother for some money but since it was already evening in the US she couldn’t send it. It was only Joanna who could help him now. He asked her to speak to the airline representative because he was already exhausted and confused by all the instructions.

A well-spoken Filipino woman explained to Joanna that he needed to buy another ticket. It would cost P18,000 and he needed it urgently or else he would not be able to fly to Manila.

“I already had a strong feeling it was all a scam at that point. But he was still texting me, saying I was an angel for doing this for him. His words sounded so good to me. I ignored my gut feeling.  I was so willing to charge it to experience.”

Joanna sent P18,000 through LBC.

“He continued to text me after that, thanking me and promising to pay me back as soon as he got to Manila. He even sent a photo of the boarding gate with a note saying that he would see me soon.”

His last message was to let her know that the flight was delayed but that he was going to see her soon.

The plane from Cebu landed, but no one came to meet Joanna. Her calls went unanswered until the line went dead. Initially, she began to worry that something may have happened to him.

She went to the airline counter to see if a passenger with his name was on the flight. The airline could not disclose passenger information but seeing how distraught she was, conceded. They managed to tell her that the flight had arrived but there was no one by that name on the flight.

“It took me that long to accept that I had been scammed,” she sighed.

Joanna immediately threw away the LBC remittance receipt. “I wanted to forget that it ever happened – and that it happened to me.”

Prime targets

In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that financial losses due to romance scams exceeded $230 million – the highest of all internet related crimes. In 2016, the FBI recorded close to 15,000 romance scam complaints. The law enforcement agency said that actual number may be higher and estimated that only about 15% of romance scams are even reported.

The Philippine National Police Anti-CyberCrime Group (PNP-ACG) investigates all crimes that make use of information communication technology or communication platforms that involve the internet, wireless networks, and mobile phone technology.

Online romance scams do not have a singular classification and fall under the crime of estafa or swindling. This makes it difficult to extract just how many complaints for online romance scams have been filed.

During the investigation for this story, Rappler spent time at the PNP-ACG complaints desk in Camp Crame. About 5 complainants came forward that day to report being a victim of an online romance scam or sextortion, the act of extorting money from someone through threats of exposing sexual photos of them.

At the time of this interview, PNP-ACG Director Marni Marcos estimated that the department was looking into about 50 complaints filed. Marcos, however, cautioned that this was not to be taken as a indication that the incidence of online romance scams is low.

On the contrary, Marcos said that these scams are becoming increasingly common, operating under what is now becoming a familiar playbook.

First, you meet online on a dating site or on Facebook in cases where the scammer sends a friend request. Once a match is made, the scammer conducts what Marcos referred to as “social engineering” or the use of deception to manipulate you into divulging personal information that may be used for fraudulent purposes.

“The scammer will analyze what you post, what you like, your interests. These con artists will use this information and gain your trust and make you fall in love with them. Sometimes it is not only about money. Scammers may be getting your personal information to be used for other fraudulent activities later on.”

In one case, Marcos shared that the victim had received a call from someone saying that her online boyfriend had met an accident and urgently needed money.

While the victims are usually women, it was difficult to pinpoint a specific profile. “The victims are from all walks of life and from across different age groups,” said Marcos.

Meanwhile, international data shows that victims are usually women, with women over the age of 50 being defrauded out of the most money. People who have experienced a devastating life-changing event like grief over the loss of a spouse, unemployment, or divorce within the last two years are more likely to be victims of any kind of surveyed fraud.

What is less common is victims reporting it. Most victims are overcome by shame and are too embarrassed to admit that they fell for a scam that they’d rather not file a complaint.

When Rappler told Marcos about Joanna’s experience, he said that hers is still considered a small amount. “One case that we are handling here ran up to P2.2 million. It involved property already. It’s usually only when the amounts involved are so high that a victim will file a complaint and pursue a case.”

While perpetrators may be individuals working together with a partner, the PNP is not discounting the possibility that criminal groups running online extortion rings may be behind online romance scams and sextortion.

Even if a case is filed, it is very difficult to investigate. “Though we receive complaints, there is little evidence to file a case in court. Who do you file a case against? What evidence is there to prove this person’s true identity? The court will not accept a case filed against a fictitious character.”

Romance scams are a slow burn operation. Scammers take their time to win their victim’s trust and pull out all the stops in endearing themselves to their victim. They are effusive with compliments and thoughtfulness until the money is transferred to them. And then the scammer disappears along with the money. 

PNP-ACG records show that no scammers have been caught and prosecuted.

Background checks

Money transfer agencies say that while checks are part of regulatory standard operating procedures, verifying the authenticity of identification cards can only be done to a certain degree.

“Our branch associates are trained to review and verify the ID cards, however – let’s admit, the prevalence of fake IDs is quite rampant, and many are really good fakes,“ said Rea Gomez of corporate affairs at LBC.

“The contract between a sender and our company/service is quite simple: a sender provides us with the information of the consignee, and if a person comes to our branch with proper identification plus the transaction details, we are, by law, required to release the funds to them,” added Gomez.

Even tracing the receiver through a mobile number provided in the transaction is futile.

“It is difficult to discern whether the number provided in the transaction is really theirs, or a ‘burner’ phone. Fake IDs, burner phones, and fake addresses are all difficult to discern and verify,” said Gomez.

To help curb scams, LBC has limited the types of acceptable IDs, however, that poses another difficulty from a business perspective. “It is a bit counterintuitive to the idea of financial inclusion that we and other remittance centers are trying to promote but we try our best to serve their needs while still complying with legal regulations,” said Gomez.

In the instances that there is enough information, LBC does blacklist the concerned identity. All future transactions under that identity will be denied.

This is rare though and most scammers are sophisticated not only in their modus operandi, but also in the presentation of their persona as charming and attentive suitors.

Charmed and disarmed

Cecille* admitted that she let her vulnerability get the better of her when she allowed herself to be smitten by Alex Brown, a 50-year-old American she had met on Tinder.

Vulnerability is not a word that one would readily associate with the 55-year-old Cecille.

Everything about Cecille spoke a subdued aura of self-assuredness. Her stylish and expensive watch tucked under the sleeve of her button down shirt. Her hair, which fell past her shoulders in soft waves that looked like they had been just been christened by a hairstylist. Her aviator shaped tinted glasses propped on her head.

On the surface, Cecille had it all. She had retired from the C-suite of her banking career and started her own travel business. She was traveling the world and relishing the role of grandmother to two precocious grandchildren.

But there was one thing was missing in her life: someone to share it all with.

“I'm lonely. I’m at a stage in my life when I want to belong to someone. When I have a great day, I have no one to share it with. When I need a hug, there’s no one,” said Cecille.

Her long-term relationship had just ended and the two sons she had raised single-handedly were grown and living their own lives. For the first time in her life, Cecille was feeling alone.

Her girl friends thought it was time to do something about it. “I was at a gathering with the girls and one of them was talking about their Tinder date and all of a sudden, all eyes turned to me! They dared me to try Tinder.”

Cecille was reluctant, but her girl friends were so adamant that they even paid for her Tinder Gold account.

Alex was an engineer with his own consultancy business working on a project in Copenhagen. He challenged her intellectually. He recommended books for her to read. And she loved talking to him about her day throughout the night and waking up to his good morning texts the next day.

He was one of the 3 men she was chatting with on Tinder. All three men were all engineers and all American. “I was having a hard time keeping up with all the texting with these different men. I was getting confused,” she laughed, exasperated at her slow transition to this kind of meeting and trying to build a connection with someone online, before you even meet them.

When Alex asked her if she was still talking to other Tinder matches, she wasn’t quite sure what to say but she didn’t want to lie and said yes. Alex wasn’t happy about it. He wanted Cecille to devote her attention to him. He was ready to commit and wanted Cecille to do the same.

At 55, Cecille had her first LDR – long distance relationship. And it began on Tinder.

For 3 months, Alex was the perfect ardent suitor and gentleman. He texted her good morning and good night, managing the time zones between them. Cecille was giddy and excited. It felt good to have someone dote on her again.

Then Alex began running into trouble. First his computer was hacked. It was the computer that he used to transact with his bank and accountant in New York. His account had to be frozen while the incident was being investigated. Then there was more trouble. He needed to pay a supplier. If he didn’t, the project would be delayed. He asked Cecille for a “bridge loan” to tide him over until the freeze on his accounts was lifted.

He asked Cecille if she could lend him $6,000.

“The thought of borrowing money from someone you have not even met raised suspicions, but I believed him more. I was actually more worried about the logistical constraints of remitting such a large amount of money.”

A former banker, Cecille was concerned about the possibility of triggering anti-money laundering laws. She asked a friend, also a former banker and tech whiz, how she could avoid money transfer problems.

Her friend was immediately alarmed. “You are not going to wire him a single centavo until I have cleared him,” he told Cecille, instructing her to send him all the photos she had of him.

A reverse Google search on the photos and a couple of hours was all it took to show that the photo actually belonged to an author on Amazon. “I checked the author’s blog on Amazon. There were some things that Alex even ripped off the blog. He told me he had a boat named Wayfinder, the author had a boat with the same name. Even his dog was allegedly named Bella was the same as the author’s.”

Cecille was shocked that someone would go to such extent and spend so much time to scam someone for money.

Cecille played along for awhile, leading Alex to believe that she was going to wire the money and he became more agitated the more she delayed. “He proposed all sorts of solutions like breaking up the amount into smaller transactions to avoid detection.”

Finally, Cecille ended it the same way it started, through a text message. “Oh, Alex, baby, did you really think that I didn’t know all this time?” The two blue check marks on WhatsApp confirmed that he had read the message. The silence after told her that he had blocked her.

Cecille became wary and cautious after that, but did not give up on online dating. She has been actively dating and has had her share of productive enjoyable dates. Reverse Google searches of photos have become a mandatory exercise before she engages with anyone she matches with. A number of photos still turn out to be fake though and it’s a reminder to never let her guard down again.

“I think it was my pride that was shot the most. In hindsight, I think two things I put on my profile made me a target for scammers. One, I put that I was an accomplished woman and two, I said that I was trying online dating for the first time. I admitted I was a virgin at – and naive about – online dating.” – Rappler.com 

 *Names have been changed to protect their privacy.