How fake internet lovers are scamming desperate singles out of millions
Hoping to find companionship during the pandemic, a Florida woman signed up for Facebook Dating. Within a half-hour, she met “Damian.” He was an orthopedic surgeon who lived a town away, but at the time, he was in Yemen on a four-month UN Peacekeeping mission.
“He’s very handsome. He’s very flirty,” the anonymous woman tells Mariana van Zeller on an episode of the journalist’s National Geographic show “Trafficked.” Airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m., it explores various global black markets that peddle things like meth, plastic surgery and guns.
She adds to van Zeller that Damian “tells me, ‘I am extremely grateful for having you in my life. Spending time with [you] drowns out my other concerns and lights up my life.’
“My heart was really overtaking my brain.”
And Damian was about to overtake her bank account. He concocted a story about armed men attacking his facility and him being scared for his life. He asked the woman for $15,000 to help pay out his contract so he could return home and be with her. She forked it over, and lost both the cash and the relationship she thought she had.
She wasn’t the only one. During the pandemic, cases of love-seeking men and women being duped out of their money by online suitors skyrocketed.
“There was a 300 percent increase in romance scams because of the pandemic and exploitation of people’s loneliness,” van Zeller told The Post. “In 2020, there was $300 million stolen from American banks.”
In a new episode of her docuseries, airing Wednesday, van Zeller dives into the underworld of romance scams, speaking to both victims who were bilked out of money and perpetrators, many of whom operate out of Ghana, which has become a hub of online-dating fraud.
The four female victims in the episode do not give their names, but they all have similar tales of being courted with poetry, flirty messages and constant online attention.
One divorcée paid her suitor nearly $300,000. A widower gave her beau over $1 million, while one 68-year-old woman forked over a whopping $2.8 million dollars.
“We found women willing to speak to us because they wanted to raise awareness. But once we met the scammers, most of them were scamming men,” said van Zeller, adding that male victims are less likely to report.
Duped lovers would be surprised to learn their dream companions are actually teams of criminals using scripts to create a bond and forged documents to pose as Americans.
Members of the crew have different roles: There are the hunters, who find potential victims; the forgers drafting credentials; the actors, who pour on the romance; and the finisher, who swoops in to seal the deal — and takes a larger percentage of the haul. Van Zeller interviews numerous operators in the West African nation, who refer to victims as “clients,” giving their business an air of respectability.
“In Ghana they speak English,” van Zeller said. The country is “technologically advanced, but it also has a lot of economically disadvantaged people without opportunities. There, if you are growing up in the slums, you see people scamming, so you do it. [The practice] has even been popularized in music and culture there.”
Members of one crew, whose faces on the show are obscured by masks, say they can be so convincing because they patiently wait for the right moment to ask for money, sometimes dragging it out over a year. They even will send their targets money and gifts to appear sincere, and will do whatever it takes to ensnare their victims.
In the episode, one male romance scammer asks a priestess to perform black magic on a man in Virginia named Michael, who has already forked over more than $10,000 to his “girlfriend.” Hoping to bilk him for more money, the scammer prints out a picture of Michael and presents it along with alcohol to the priestess, who puts a love spell on the man living over 5,000 miles away.
“The priestess takes part of the money,” said van Zeller. “So it’s almost like they are scamming the scammer.”
Ultimately, though, preying on someone’s emotions produces a strange side effect: affection.
“I actually think there is a lot of empathy. We spoke to a man named Odo who stopped doing it because he couldn’t take it anymore. His last victim was evicted from her house. In black markets, you often find people who don’t care, but that was not the case here,” van Zeller revealed. “They said it was impossible to not form a connection.”
Indeed, one woman van Zeller spoke with “dated” a man for two years. When she learned that it was a scammer in Ghana, she was also surprised to hear he wanted a real relationship with her. “He was crying and told her he loved her,” said van Zeller.