Tuesday, August 18, 2020

THE DARK SIDE OF ONLINE ROMANCE

by Lisa Black

The numbers of romance scams are overwhelming, but stories rarely go into the details of exactly who the victims are and what motivates them. One well-reported case is that of 56 year old Renee Holland of Pennsylvania, who began an online correspondence with a buff soldier named “Michael Chris.” Michael was off disarming bombs in Afghanistan. He was happy to have someone back in the states to talk to, about war, about life, about his sick daughter in California. 

In cash terms, this scam was low-key and minor. Michael took his time. He spent months digitally chatting with Renee until he asked for money—small amounts, at first. iTunes cards to top off his cell phone, beer money to celebrate his birthday, medicine for his daughter. Then she sent him five thousand dollars—all the cash she and her husband had stashed—to fly home to Philadelphia. She waited at the airport. Michael didn’t show.

Because, of course, the photos posted on Facebook were actually those of a Marine named Daniel, who has spent years trying to remove his stolen and clipped photos from internet profiles. He has had relationships ruined and his family screening phone calls for him because of contacts by broken-hearted women wondering why he has ghosted them. There were over 65 fake profiles on Facebook using his photos. 

A The New York Times reporter doing a story on romance scams talked with Renee and then located, with difficulty, the put-upon Daniel. He tracked Renee’s true correspondent to southern Nigeria, most likely an Orji James Ogbonnaya. The money had been filtered—which is common—through an American accomplice, another victim of a romance scam pressured into functioning as a conspirator. Fake addresses, multiple phones, no real names all keep the Yahoo Boys (so-called for the internet site popular when these scams originated 20 years ago). Of course these scams are not limited to one place, they can also stem from Russia, Ukraine, India, Bangladesh, and so on. Nor are they limited to lonely, middle-aged women—the victims are bright, intelligent people who run the gamut of gender, age, race, and nationality.

When Michael didn’t show at the airport, Renee went to the store, bought sleeping pills and vodka and swallowed it all. She woke up in a hospital, her husband nearby. He was understanding, at first, having been Army Airborne himself. They tried to keep going. They moved to Florida, trying for a fresh start.
It’s a credit to the United States that we think so much of our soldiers. Presenting a military identity automatically confers respect, appreciation, and a desire to support, and that’s a wonderful thing about us. But it also turns the well-meaning into easy targets of those whose poverty has robbed them of conscience. A New York Times search on Facebook for the top three American generals produced over 120 impersonators. I know, I think I was friended by a few.

Renee’s Michael didn’t give up, with profuse apologies and complicated excuses. Between the strain of making amends to her husband and caring for an elderly, live-in father, Renee had only Michael for a sympathetic ear. 

They kept in touch.
And she wound up sending him another twenty-plus thousand dollars, charging most of it.

There is progress being made. Social media platforms are meeting with advocates to improve methods of reporting and removing fake profiles, and a bill is currently before the House to prohibit the creation of fake profiles and fraudulent messages, and another to require social media platforms to remove such accounts. Domestic and overseas scammers have been charged and prosecuted.

But it will all come too late for Renee Holland. Two days before Christmas, 2018, her husband shot and killed her, then her father, then himself.

Do you know anyone who’s become a victim of a scam?

1 comment:

  1. This is such an important warning to all about such scams! I may have mentioned in an earlier comment that I have received dozens (!) of Facebook "Friend Requests" from so-called "Generals serving in Afghanistan" accompanied by attractive photos of "single" or "widowed" men -- of course I delete them all. Some "Friend" requesters even attach a photo of a "mutual friend" -- who is not a mutual friend at all (I have always double checked those -- some even listed you Lisa -- I remember that every single one was a fake). Thanks for this terrific post!...Karna Bodman

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