Advocating Against Romance Scammers
CBC Radio Canada - By Jeff Yates 2018
Feints of heart
Lies, fraud and the fight against romance scams
In a small bridal shop in Columbia, South Carolina, an hour away from home, Susie is trying on wedding dresses. She is 70 years old and she is shopping alone. No family members or friends are here to share this moment with her. Susie is shopping so she can be married to Howard, a man she's never met and to whom she lent $90,000. Her suitcases are packed, her closet is empty. She's ready to leave. All that is missing now is a signal from the man who has seduced her on Facebook. Meanwhile, her husband of 50 years waits for her at home.
A recorded narration by Elizabeth Robertson
Chapter 1
A curious seduction
For nine months now, Susie has been talking to Howard every night. She has fallen head over heels for him. She is preparing their wedding at his request. Excited, Susie takes pictures of herself wearing long white dresses. She sends them to Howard on her mobile phone, glancing over and over at her screen to see if he's responded.
Susie's husband has no idea she has taken a lover, let alone one she dreams of marrying. He is also in the dark about where their savings are going. What Susie doesn't know is that her new suitor is a fake, and that her money is gone forever.
Like thousands of women every year who are fleeced by scammers using false identities on social media, Susie is the victim of a romance scam. The modus operandi is almost always the same: over a period that can span months, even years, the scammer gradually wins over the victim, typically a divorced, widowed or lonely woman. He becomes a part of her everyday life, compliments and cajoles her, until she falls for him. His trap set, he then begins asking her for money.
721 Canadians were victims of romance scams 2017, according to the Canadian Anti-fraud Center (CAC). $18,1 million was stolen. According to the CAC's estimations, only only up to five per cent of cases are reported.
Several victims of romance scams, all women, agreed to tell their stories to Radio-Canada. Their sadly similar stories shed light on a cruel scheme that is more frequent than one might think. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Susie has no idea how her scammer found her. She says a friend request popped up "out of nowhere" on her Facebook profile. He called himself Howard Brandon, a sixty-something widower, father of a 15 year-old boy, and globetrotting salesman from Alabama.
Howard would send Susie pictures of himself in locations all over the world. His life seemed riveting. Smiling behind the wheel of luxury cars, eating in fancy restaurants, enjoying life with his son or with friends. He was always impeccably dressed. In a few pictures, he even proudly wore a uniform from his military days.
Susie lived with her husband on the outskirts of Camden, a hamlet of some 7,000 souls in South Carolina. On a list of the region's top 10 tourist attractions, two are cemeteries. The American army suffered its worst defeat in the Revolutionary War nearby.
She had started to feel invisible in her husband's presence. She was ripe for the plucking. "He was the reason why I turned to this man. That's also the reason why married women do it, too, when husbands don't pay you no attention," she says.
"They make you fall in love with them. And then, there's nothing left. It's not only your money that you lost, your heart's broken, too." - Susie
Susie and Howard would talk for hours on the Viber messaging app. He had a weird accent for an American, she thought, but he told her he was born in Denmark. He gradually started to profess romantic feelings for her.
Shortly after beginning their virtual tryst, Howard said he had to go on a lengthy business trip. "He had to go to West Virginia, then London, then Hong Kong," Susie remembers.
When she tells these stories, she has a tendency to discuss Howard as if he really existed, as if we were talking about a real businessman. She pauses and quips: "Now, you know I'm just telling you what he told me. Now I know it was all a lie."
One day, Howard called her in a panic. He seemed nervous. The materials he wanted to import from Singapore for his business were stuck at the border. He didn't have the funds to pay the taxes and duty fees. He had already refinanced his fancy cars, he said. Could she help him out with a loan?
"That's when he started begging. I sent some money before my husband found out about this. It started out just bits and pieces," Susie says. She sent $200 here, $300 there. When her husband asked where the money was going, she told him she was paying internet or power bills.
There came a day when Howard asked for a sum so large that Susie could hardly hide it from her husband. Howard gave her a cover story: her childhood friend had recently got in touch with her and needed a loan to start a business. "The last payment was something like $65,000. We refinanced our house," she says. Howard assured her that it was an investment, that she would see a handsome profit and that, soon, he'd be back in the United States and that they could be married.
"By then, he had me hooked. I never had a man make me feel like he did," she recalls.
"I feel crazy talking to you about this."
Time flew by. Despite the $90,000 that Susie had already sent him, Howard was still abroad and continued asking for money. His materials were still in administrative limbo, he said. Howard also claimed that he got into a serious car accident in Turkey and both his knees were dislocated. He said he needed money for medical treatment.
As proof, Howard sent her pictures of his injuries. "He even sent me one that had a hospital bracelet with his name on it," Susie says. "He sent me several pictures that I later found out were photoshopped."
But Susie's finances were sucked dry. "He started getting a bit ugly when I told him that there was no more money. I said, 'I won't live now to see my house paid for.' Well, not unless I live a lot longer than I think I will."
She then tried to borrow money from friends and acquaintances. Ironically, this is what saved her. Her friend's son is a police officer in Charleston, South Carolina. He thought Susie's story was suspicious. After some research, he had bad news for Susie. Howard's photos had been used by scammers before. They were plastered all over the web, on dating sites and social media profiles.
Susie confronted Howard. "He said that someone had stolen his pictures. He said that I didn't care for him, otherwise I wouldn't be asking him these questions." But she finally saw clear through him. She had been scammed.
"I was... I was pretty broken up about it. I'd started doubting some, but in the back of my mind, I was crazy in love with that man."
Will she be able to live through this? She hesitates. "Yeah. There's some things I may never completely get over. My love for him. I know that. It's just something I have to put in its proper place." Then she sighs: "Sometimes I'll fall into a little hole and start thinking about him, and what I thought we had. The holidays, things like that, make me think about him."
Chapter 2
"I'm the man in those pictures"
It only takes a few minutes of research on social media to find a dozen accounts using the same pictures Howard sent Susie. They bear different names - Denis Walter, Mason Logan, Terry Giovanni - and claim to hail from different locations - California, Kansas or Venice, Italy.
In reality, the man in those pictures lives about 8,000 kilometres away from Alabama, where Howard said he lived. He's a tobacconist from the region of Lorraine, France, in a small town on the German border with some 12,000 inhabitants. He and his wife have run their small shop for the past 31 years, where he says he works nine hours a day, Monday to Saturday.
Radio-Canada managed to track this man down on LinkedIn using small details in some of the pictures. He was quite surprised that we'd managed to track him down. However, he was not shocked to learn that scammers were using photos of him.
"My pictures have been used on dating sites and fake Facebook profiles for years," he wrote in an email. "In truth, these pictures were stolen from my Facebook page six or seven years ago. I've since deleted my account. I even closed down my Twitter account."
He says his friends regularly alert him of new fake profiles using his pictures. He himself feels victimized and admits the situation is terrible, for him as well as for his wife and family.
"I was angry to learn that these crooks were using my pictures, and, above all, my appearance to steal money from these poor women who've fallen into their trap," he continues. "I am deeply sorry to learn that this American woman has been scammed out of so much money."
He's not the only victim of identity theft. Romance scammers often reuse the same pictures over and over again, always handsome men in their forties or fifties with respectable jobs: soldiers, engineers, doctors. They seem active and have style.
Bryan Denny's pictures are particularly popular with online scammers. He's a retired U.S. Army colonel from Virginia. In pictures one can find all over the web, he smiles wearing an impeccable dress uniform in front of the Hotel des Invalides, in Paris, a glass of champagne in his hand. Or he's tending to his horse on his ranch. In two years, he estimates that he's flagged some 2,000 fake Facebook profiles that were using his pictures.
It all started with a message on LinkedIn. A woman from Montreal he'd never met wanted to talk to him. She believed that she had been corresponding with him for the past six months. She had given the impostor money so he could get a flight to come visit her. She sent Denny a picture of a plane ticket. To his horror, it had his name on it.
"I got kind of a cold shiver. I was like, 'Oh my God, what's going on? This is crazy. I'd never heard of romance scamming. It was quite alarming," he says over the phone. "Within an hour, I went on to Facebook and typed my name. And it didn't take me long to realize that there were maybe 15 other accounts all using pictures of me, with different names and different backgrounds."
"Someone was telling me, 'Don't worry, as you get older, they'll stop using your pictures.' But the thing is, the pictures never age. They don't go away. This can go on for freaking ever if we don't do something about it." - Bryan Denny
The colonel bristles when he sees scammers using pictures of his son or wife. Scammers often tell their victims that she died of cancer or in a car accident.
Helpless, Bryan Denny could only grasp the extent of the problem. "I got a really weird, creepy, sick kind of feeling," he says. For a brief instant, one can feel his military cadence slip a bit.
Denny claims he receives multiple messages a day on LinkedIn from victims who want to understand what happened to them. Almost always, it's too late. It's only once they've given away large sums of money that they start researching the man they believe they've been talking to, he says.
The colonel singlehandedly flagged some 600 fake Facebook profiles within a year, but soon felt exhausted. That's when he met Kathy Waters, from Fresno, California. A friend's mother was defrauded by a scammer who said he was Bryan Denny. He and Waters have since joined forces to fight scammers who steal soldiers' identities.
"Without Kathy, I think I would just have given up. It felt like I was fighting an insurgency. It was just overwhelming," he says.
Together, they've continued finding and flagging fake profiles using the colonel's pictures. Both have full-time jobs and fight scammers in their free time. They've documented their efforts in a report that was presented to Facebook representatives in October. According to them, social media sites have their share of responsibility to bear.
"It surprised me that there's no policy on this. All social media sites can just run wild on this, and nothing is being done. No one is held accountable. No one is held responsible," Waters says. "They're trying to frame it like these women who sent money are responsible. Part of that is true, but they're the ones who run the breeding ground for this, and they're still not taking much responsibility."
Facebook confirmed to Radio-Canada that its representatives met with Denny and Waters, but could not say how many accounts the pair had managed to flag. A Facebook representative assured that the social media site takes this problem seriously. Facebook announced in October that it was doubling the amount of employees in its safety and security team, from 10,000 to 20,000. The site is also working on new techniques like machine learning to help this team find and eliminate fraudulent profiles. According to the representative, Facebook is also monitoring and analyzing the behavioral patterns of scammers to try and detect fake profiles before they even manage to get them online.
In November 2017, there were 2.07 billion monthly active users on Facebook, of which an estimated two per cent to three per cent were fake. This translates to between 41.4 million and 62.1 million fake and fraudulent accounts on the site.
Denny doesn't understand why, after flagging more than 2,000 fake accounts, someone can still create a Facebook account using his pictures. What's more, the accounts he and Waters flag are not always deleted, he claims.
This is why they launched a petition last year to get the U.S. government to act. At the end of February, they are slated to meet members of Congress, as well as representatives of the Pentagon.
"These are unscrupulous scammers taking advantage of good people all over the globe and it's exactly the type of people that I wanted to fight against when I joined the United States army. That motivates me to keep fighting," Denny says.
Chapter 3
The Fight Back
On the other side of the Atlantic, while Denny was coming to grips with the magnitude of the problem, a British woman decided that she wanted to help victims fight scammers on their own turf.
Ruth Grover has a soft voice that rings with a light North East English accent. She is modest to a fault. The idea of giving an interview makes her a bit uncomfortable.
Two years ago, she launched the Scam Haters United page on Facebook. With her friend Marie Lavery, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, she runs what has become a sort of clearinghouse for information about scammers, and a support group for victims.
Neither Grover nor Lavery were themselves scammed. Ruth Grover began her fight against scammers when she changed her Facebook profile to indicate that she was a widow. Shady friend requests - supposedly from handsome, single men - started pouring in. Contrary to many victims, she saw through their game.
"You're in your fifties and you get a message from a soldier in his thirties saying, 'Hi gorgeous', and you're like, 'no way'," she says.
After doing some research, she understood that these friend requests were in fact romance scam attempts. Fraudsters would lurk around Facebook groups for widows or divorcees, looking for fresh victims. What she saw disgusted her.
"Marie and I don't carry the hurt of a victim, we don't put emotions into it. This is not revenge," Ruth says. "I'm doing it because I can, I have the time to do this. I had no idea how busy it would become. I'm shocked, frankly."
"The people scammed the most are the nicest people, people who would never even think that someone could do this to them." - Ruth Grover
Scam Haters United now has more than 4,500 members. Its users can unmask 10 fake profiles a day. The page publishes the photos and names the scammers are using. Grover and Lavery hear horrible stories every day. "Honestly, if we wrote a book, no one would believe it," Grover says.
Every year, during the holidays, women recount stories of being abandoned at the airport In a typical case, the scammer asks his victim to send him money so he can buy a plane ticket to come spend Christmas with her. He even sends her fake screengrabs of his flight itinerary or pictures of his tickets. She waits in vain for him to show up at the airport. She later returns home, alone.
One woman told Ruth Grover that she went to the airport, thinking the man she'd fallen for and his children were on their way for Christmas. "She had a party waiting for him at home, with guests, presents for his kids under the tree," she says. "That's so cruel. For the scammers, the victims are not human beings, they don't care about the destruction they cause."
Grover and Lavery also run a secret Facebook group, a sort of communal hangout where some 400 victims of romance scams can meet and share their stories. The group alleviates their loneliness and can help them heal from the humiliation they often feel.
"It's more than just the money. It's the destruction of their self worth and of their trust in other people. They beat themselves up more than the scammer," says Grove.
Healing together
Vanessa is 55 years old and lives in British Columbia. Barely two months ago, she learned that the man she fell in love with and with whom she talked every day for two years was in fact a scammer.
Adelric had promised to marry her. Like Susie's scammer, he told her he only needed a bit of money to pay for materials he wanted to import from Malaysia. All told, she lost some $82,000.
When Vanessa stopped sending money, the scam took a cruel turn. A person claiming to be Adelric's daughter wrote her an email. In it, she said that Adelric's mother was dying. She needed money for medical treatments. In the email, she calls Vanessa "mom."
"Mom, you want my grandma to be on her deathbed, to be taken to the mortuary? Do you want my dad to keep suffering in Malaysia? Mom, this is the first time that I ask you to help me, but you keep saying that you don't have resources. This is how much you love me?"
Vanessa quickly moved on. "I put it all behind me, especially when I met this group [Scam Haters]. It really opened my eyes. When I talk to them, it's like my healing process," she says. "It really helped me a lot. The more I talk, the more I share my problems, the less stressed I am. I feel like they know what I've been through."
Apart from acting as a support network for victims, the group also tries to help them take back control of their digital lives. Rather than simply rueing their loss, the women encourage each other to prowl social media in search of fake accounts.
Ruth Grover calls it "going fishing." The women go on Facebook groups for widows, like My Husband in Heaven or Star Angles. They publish a short message of greeting to the community. Inevitably, they start getting suspicious friend requests from potential scammers. When they find a fake profile, they report it to Facebook and try to warn other women who might have been in touch with the scammer.
"After all they've been through, some of the victims were afraid to even open their laptops. These women are now brave. They're out there, warning other women. They stand up to scammers, which they never would have done. It's about women fighting back," she says, proudly.
Had she not been warned by Scam Haters, Louise might well have lost much more money. Over the course of a year, she had pursued a virtual romantic liaison with Brian, who claimed to be an American soldier stationed in Nigeria.
He told Louise that he wanted to come visit her at her home, near Liverpool, England. However, he said he couldn't get enough money for the plane ticket. Soldiers on the base couldn't access their bank accounts, he claimed. Would she loan him some money so that they could be together?
Louise sent him some money, but then he told her that he'd been robbed. She had run out of money. Reluctantly, she sold a diamond ring she had so she could send him some more. Louise had sent some 4,000 pounds ($7,000 CDN) before receiving a message from Scam Haters.
"At no time did I think he was a scammer. I was absolutely gobsmacked when I got a message from Ruth Grover to tell me that he was a scammer and that he was scamming two other women at the same time. I really couldn't believe it," she says.
Being a retired social worker, Louise tries to give some emotional support to other members of the group. She also managed to talk to her scammer's two other victims. They realized that he had sent them all the same messages, word for word. Louise talks to one of them regularly and they've consoled each other. The other woman refuses to believe that Brian was a scammer.
The tip of the iceberg
The victims Radio-Canada talked to all claim to have filed a complaint with the police, but the vast majority of romance scams are never reported.
"In general, cases of fraud are never reported for various reasons. The victim often feels humiliated that he or she fell for the scam and so they decide to keep it secret," says Sgt. Guy-Paul Larocque of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). According to him, the typical victim is between 50 and 59 years old. Approximately 60 per cent of them are women.
"I felt betrayed. He knows how I am. I said, 'you took advantage of me because you know I'm a trustworthy person.' And he said, 'No, I'm not taking advantage, I love you so much, blah blah blah...' " - Vanessa
Sgt. Larocque admits that those responsible are often very difficult to catch. They are frequently overseas, where Canadian authorities have no jurisdiction. Countries like the Ivory Coast and Nigeria are notorious hotbeds of this type of scheme. "Once in a while, we'll catch one of these individuals, but often, those we catch are only the tip of the iceberg," he says.
Ruth Grover also tries to temper victims' expectations. "A lot of the victims are thinking, 'Let's get him arrested and throw out the key.' They have to understand that that will often not happen," she concedes. "They have to come to grips with the fact that they probably can't get their money back, that they probably can't get the scammer arrested. The best they can do is try to feel better about themselves."
However, Sgt. Larocque insists that victims should report any scam to their local police force. The RCMP and the CAC use these reports to gather information and to allocate the necessary resources to carry out investigations.
What's more, provinces and territories have resources in place to help victims of all types of crimes, including psychological or legal help. "Victims have to go through the legal process to have access to those services. The case doesn't necessarily need to lead to charges or arrests. All victims have the right to these services," Sgt. Larocque says.
Today, Vanessa says she is at peace. She claims that her losing this money might be part of God's plans for her. "The money didn't really belong to me," she says, insisting that what happened was a sign that God decided to give it to someone else.
A new friendship grew out of Louise's work with Scam Haters. Every Sunday, she speaks on the phone with an American woman, another romance scam victim like her. "She's never told anybody about what happened to her, but she's told me all about it," Louise says. "It's very helpful to talk to other women."
Susie reported her case to police in South Carolina, but she has no idea how the investigation is going. She tried confronting the man pretending to be Howard, but he disappeared. She decided to admit everything to her husband.
"He already sort of knew when I told him. I asked him if he wanted me to leave, and he said he didn't. We've been together 50 years," she says. "I thank goodness my husband forgave me. We're doing okay, but... you know." She skips a beat. "I've got a good husband. He's not the most loving husband in the world, but he is a good man."
Only two people in this article have met face to face. Ruth Grover and Marie Lavery have been working together for two years, but they've never met. Same with Louise and her new friend. It was only after a year of collaborating virtually that Kathy Waters and Bryan Denny finally sat down for a face to face meeting, shortly before they met with Facebook. It remains the only time they've been in the same room.
Susie dreams of one day speaking - in the flesh, eye to eye - with another victim of a romance scam. "I want to sit down with her and talk to her about all of this," she admits. She's still looking for a conversation partner.
What would she like to get out of such a conversation? "I don't know. At least I could show her that she's not the only one who's been through this. I could tell her how... to tell you the truth, I never thought I would end up here."
And her husband? "He's not a talker," she says. "He's never been a talker."
Meanwhile, Susie has started putting the pieces of her life back together. She hasn't been able to completely forget Howard, even if she knows he was fake.
"I got rid of all his text messages, but I haven't got rid of his pictures. I ain't got to that point yet.... But they're not him anyway. They were just the pictures he told me were him," she says. "I'm just not ready to let go of that yet."
At the other end of the line, she pauses, then continues.
"I don't look at them nearly as much as I used to."
Credits
Jeff Yates
Text and research
Marie-Pier Mercier
Design, illustrations
Elizabeth Robertson
Narration (audio format)
Guy Charbonneau
Sound recording
Sylvie Lavoie
Audio production
Cedric Edouard
Development, programming
Lore Brit
Project lead, digital development
Xavier Vachon
Quality assurance
Claudia Timmons
Content lead
Yannick Pinel
Director of online content strategy