Behind the headlines about online romance scams victimizing older women and men lie true stories with real victims and perpetrators.
A recent case in point: Olayinka Sunmola, a Nigerian citizen operating out of South Africa who posted fake profiles on a variety of dating sites, including Plenty of Fish, eHarmony and Match, to lure women. When representing himself, he used the real pictures of other people, often masquerading as an officer in the U.S. armed forces. Sunmola claimed he was widowed with a child, and a practicing Christian with a strong faith.
Anatomy of a Scam
After finding victims online, Sunmola, 33, quickly moved them off the dating sites to communicate through Yahoo chat, and attempted to explain his slight accent by claiming he was originally born in Italy or Greece. He spent weeks or months developing relationships with his victims, many of whom lived in Missouri or Illinois. Sunmola often sent them gifts such as flowers or chocolates, and then asked for small sums of money for supposed minor emergencies in order to test the waters with them.
The women were convinced they had found their true love and soul mate. In most cases, Sunmola assured them that they would be married in the near future.
That last part never came to fruition, of course. Sunmola was recently prosecuted in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Illinois. The indictment charged that he defrauded at least 30 women in the U.S. In addition, he used stolen credit cards to order laptops and iPads that he had shipped to his victims. They, in turn shipped, them to him in South Africa.
Scammers often use the name and picture of an officer in the Army overseas. The military has set up a Facebook page to warn victims .
Horror Stories from Romance Scam Victims
The fallout for Sunmola’s victims was devastating:
- He instructed one to apply for a credit card, get cash advances on it and then send money to him in South Africa through Western Union and MoneyGram. He promised to pay her back, and at one point did pay off the credit card — with money he’d obtained from an online bank account he had hacked into in California. When the bank discovered the losses, it went after the victim for collection. She was left with $98,000 in debt and had to file for bankruptcy.
- Sunmola sent four traveler’s checks for $1,000 each to another victim and had her use MoneyGram and Western Union to send the money to him. He claimed to be a military officer traveling on a confidential mission, saying that was why he couldn’t cash the checks himself. However, the traveler’s checks were actually stolen. The victim was arrested, strip searched and faced criminal charges. She also lost her job as a manager at Wal-Mart.
- Sunmola convinced another woman they were soon to be married. He had her perform in a sexually explicit manner on Skype, which he secretly recorded. When she ran out of money to send, he threatened to post the video online. And when she couldn’t come up with more cash, Sunmola sent the video to her relatives, claiming he had four more and would post them for the world to see unless the “highest bidder” would pay him not to do so. He also told the woman by phone that by the time he was finished with her, she would want to kill herself.
I listened to several of these women testify at trial. None struck me as unusual and all seemed bright. They had fallen in love, and were willing to do almost anything for the new man in their life.
It’s hard to know the exact size of Sunmola’s enterprise. But this much is clear: He obtained at least $1 million in laptops and other stolen electronic gear and obtained at least $730,000 from his victims.
After two days of a jury trial, Sunmola changed his plea to guilty. At a sentencing hearing on Aug. 12 of this year, prosecutors recommended a sentence of 30 years. The judge has not yet sentenced Sunmola.
The Extent of the Romance Scams Frauds
Romance scams are a massive area of fraud. Women over 50 suffered more than 61 percent of the financial losses in 2012, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission received 8,715 complaints and the IC3 reported an additional 12,509 complaints. IC3 also reported aggregate losses to their victims at $204 million for 2015 alone.
A noted cybersecurity expert I’ve talked to has estimated that at any given moment there could be 25,000 scammers online, with the vast majority of them operating from Lagos, Nigeria.
How They Contact Victims
Aside from the dating websites, the romance scammers sometimes use Facebook and other social media (sending “friend” requests, for instance). Women are not the only victims; males have been targeted, too.
Scammers often use the name and picture of an officer in the U.S. Army stationed overseas. The U.S. military has set up a Facebook page that attempts to warn victims about the use of the names of their personnel.
More Trouble for Those Exploited
And what might a romance fraud operator do with a victim with no money to send? He can use her to launder money from other victims, by acting as a “mule.” Law enforcement officers believe a large group of mules receive money or goods purchased with stolen credit cards and then send it out of the U.S. As a result, some romance scam victims are aiding and abetting many other types of frauds and can be prosecuted.
Some romance scam victims have been used to transport drugs (often unknowingly), and have been imprisoned. In most cases, it appears a victim — often over 65 — was convinced by the scammer to travel with a suitcase or other item, which she or he didn’t know contained drugs.
How to Spot a Fraud
To protect yourself from becoming a romance fraud victim, experts recommend the following:
- Meet the person face to face: If you encounter someone online who can’t meet in person, there’s a high probability (nearing certainty) that this is a fraud. Do not loan money, give personal identifying and financial information or send money to someone in an online romance or a voice on the phone.
- Check the person’s photograph: The initial profiles the scammers post always have photographs. Use a search engine that can fairly reliably identify pictures. Tin Eye is one; Google “search by image” is another. If the same picture appears with other names and in other places, it is very likely fraudulent.
- Check the person’s language: An Internet search of an unusual twist of phrase from a profile or email may also turn up other posts showing it was used in a different romance scam. Because scammers deal with so many victims, they’ll inevitably use the same language repeatedly.
- Check to see if there is a real business overseas: If the person claims to own, or be working for, a business overseas, call the U.S. Embassy in the appropriate country to verify if this is a real business.
- Read about how the military handles money for soldiers: Fraudsters impersonating the U.S. military often claim that there is some reason the military can’t provide needed funds — and that the victim needs to help them. This website explains how this scam works, and provides examples of fake government forms crooks commonly use.
Where to Complain – and Why
Many victims are reluctant to file complaints with authorities. But doing so may help prevent someone else from being defrauded.
So if you determine you’re a romance scam victim, report the crime to your police department, IC3.gov, FTC.gov, your local FBI or Department of Homeland Security office and any Internet dating sites where you “met” your scammer.