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Guardian of the Gullible and Lonely Hearted

Guardian of the Gullible and Lonely Hearted

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Published by Joey Grihalva
Digital con artists extort innocent online daters in a multi-billion dollar industry that won't be stopped.
Digital con artists extort innocent online daters in a multi-billion dollar industry that won't be stopped.

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Published by: Joey Grihalva on Jun 06, 2011
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06/07/2011

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GUARDIAN OF THE GULLIBLEAND LONELY HEARTED
Digital con artists target online daters in an illegalmulti-billion dollar industry that will not be stopped
 By Joey Grihalva
*By request, the subject’s name has been changed.
oncordia fine arts student Chuck Cameron* flips through a black leatheralbum packed with pictures mailed to the online dating company where he works, profile shots of members who need help scanning and uploading theirimages to the Web. Cameron stops on a Polaroid of a middle-aged man with adragon shirt and a twisted moustache.“That guy is awesome. Who sends a shot of the back of their shirt? It’sslightly illegal for me to show you these,” he says about the photo album, “but Ilove this thing!”Cameron’s adoration for the unauthorized collection of photographs is atestament to how much he enjoys his customer service job at a fifth floor office onMontréal’s Main, which is furnished with sleek frosted glass windows, exposed brick and enough soft drinks to hydrate a small army. When I visit on a Saturday evening he is trying to convince the dragonshirt guy not to send $1,800 to a woman in Ghana. Cameron is certain theprofile—that features seven studio quality shots of a striking shorthaired blondtwenty-something—is fraudulent. He says the profile fits the prototype of a“romance scam,” which he informs me is a confidence trick where a target on anonline dating site is persuaded to send money for a visa or a plane ticket or othersuch scripted stories. Apparently it is quite popular in Ghana.“I tried to explain to the guy that I check for fake profiles all day. It’s my  job. But he just didn’t want to listen,” Cameron laments. “It’s sad because I’msure in his city there’s half a dozen girls who might be into him, but he just wantsthis one girl.”
C
 
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The scamming network 
The romance scam, a subset of the advance-fee fraud, was pioneered inNigeria, Ghana’s neighbor in the Gulf of Guinea. The scam requires an investor,the target, to pay a fee up front before receiving any proceeds. Also known as419 crime—the number refers to its article in the Nigerian Criminal Code—advance-fee fraud has become a national pastime in Nigeria.It all started in the 1970s when hundreds of letters were sent to small businesses in the United States and Europe. They claimed to be official figures inthe Nigerian government asking for help with the disposal of new oil money. By 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice had a court order to open every piece of mail from Nigeria passing through JFK airport in New York. Around 70 per centof these letters contained scam offers. An explosion of Nigerian email scams flooded the Internet in the 2000sand a number of nations created official cyber crime units, but scammersadapted. Today these iCriminals engage in check laundering, credit card fraud,identity theft, Moneygram interceptions and Western Union hijacking. Organizedscam rings buy out entire Internet cafés and employ women and young men toscour dating websites for potential targets, luring them in with fabricatedprofiles.Leonard Lawal reported for
 Fortune Magazine
in 2006 that teenagers inLagos, Nigeria could make it big doing 10 hour days, seven days a week workingscams in Internet cafés, earning the nickname “café boys.” Lawal, a senior analystfor Advisory Services Africa Limited in the Gulf of Guinea, tells me that since his
 Fortune
piece, things have changed. For one, the “café boys” are not aroundmuch. Internet service in Lagos is relatively cheap today so scamming operationshave moved into private residencies. And it’s no longer an exclusive activity forteenagers. Despite increased awareness, hundreds of prosecutions and a reported$11 billion in recovered funds by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial CrimesCommission (EFCC), 419 criminals continue to thrive. Advance-fee fraud has become a pseudo-career, tailored for computer-savvy university graduates who unable to find employment. A 26-year oldNigerian man facing trial in the Ondo State is wanted by the FBI for email scams
 
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 valued at $800,000. He faces up to 60 years in jail, but in reality he will get off  without a scratch if he takes a desk job with the same cyber crime unit thatcaught him, the type of organization that is in desperate need of his kind of expertise, not to mention, who pay handsomely and tend to expunge criminalrecords.
Customer service
The majority of Cameron’s workday is spent fishing for bogus babes.Cracking down on scammers is his favorite part of the job. But Cameron and hisdepartment are an exception in the business of online dating. Websites encouragetheir members to report suspicious profiles, but most lack a customer servicehotline and depend entirely on filtering software to weed out the phonies. We can only wonder if more proactive site-guarding could have saved AlCircelli, a Yonkers, New York man who put a bullet through his head after a woman from Ghana failed to show up on her Delta flight, a woman he had he sentover $50,000. Might a dedicated defense team have stopped Kate Roberts, amiddle-aged British divorcee, from having to sell her house after handing over£80,000 to a Nigerian gang posing as a U.S. soldier, a veteran who happens to bedead. This new, twisted angle luring single, patriotic women, and is becomingdisturbingly popular. When Cameron stumbles upon a pattern of scamming he writes up areport for his boss, which gets passed along to the programmers who use it todevelop their filtering software. The information does not get reported to anofficial agency. Cameron and his coworkers are under the impression that theironly recourse is to delete the profile. When they get a call from a customer whohas sent $20,000 to a person they think might be fake—which happens aboutonce a month—they merely advise them not to send any more money and they investigate the profile.Occasionally Cameron hears about a legal case being built on a scammeror network. These are difficult because no country presently treats attemptedfraud as a prosecutable crime; counting only when a financial loss incurs. Thereis no official international agency documenting 419 crime, but in the Netherlands

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