Growing online dating scam leaves victims with emotional trauma, drains finances

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Disbelief, shock and fear would hardly describe the feelings of a lady, identified as Doris Foluke (not real names to protect her identity) when a friend notified her of a picture message sent to her inbox. As the details of the message were shown to her, Foluke realised that a guy she met on Facebook had carried out his threat. She alleged that the guy had threatened to spread the videos and pictures of her nudes and that money must exchange hands to prevent the spread. She added, “He was requesting money so that he would not share the nude video and pictures that are not even true, to start with. So why should I pay him?” she queried. However, that friend was not the only person to whom the picture was sent; she said other friends who got the pictures began reaching out to her. “Those he shared them with told me about it, and I explained (what happened) to them, but I could only explain to those who told me he sent pictures to them,” Foluke said. She told our correspondent that she refused to succumb to his threats, and that she made sure to live her life devoid of trauma, until he eventually left her alone. Asked if she reported the case to the police, she said she didn’t but instead reported to a lawyer friend for legal advice. Arguably, Foluke is only one of the few Nigerian women who were victims of sextortion and romance scams. Findings revealed that such perpetrators sometimes target foreigners as victims of their criminal trade. What sextortion, romance scam is The Federal Bureau of Investigation described sextortion as a criminal act that involved threats to distribute private and sensitive materials of the victims unless the demand of the perpetrator is complied with. The demands which are often laced with threats could be money or sexual favours, among others. The United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency referred to sextortion as financially motivated sexual extortion and online blackmail. It stated that from 2022, there had been an increase in reports of cases targeting children between the ages of 15 and 17 years and adults aged between 18 and 30 years. Sextortion scams are usually run by sophisticated criminal gangs and their targets are sometimes foreigners. A consumer cyber safety company, Norton, defined a romance scam as an online dating scam where a cybercriminal uses a fake identity to gain the trust of their victim and trick them into believing that they are in a romantic relationship. After gaining the trust of their supposed lover, the cybercriminal then begins to request or blackmail them for money. Data, losses Sextortion and romance scams, reports have shown, predated the exploration of the internet and social media. A 2019 report by a legal director, Legal Policy and Research Unit, International Bar Association, Sara Carnegie, and published by the association, referred to sextortion as both a form of corruption and sexual exploitation. The report discovered that in war or disaster-prone communities and for asylum seekers, some so-called aiders requested sexual favours in return for food, medicine and shelter. According to a resource for digital freedom, ProPrivacy, dating scams were “the most profitable of all scams in the United States of America.” Data from the US Federal Trade Commission noted that in 2020, $304m was lost to dating scams while $201m was lost in 2019. In 2022, there were almost 70,000 reported cases of romance scams and about $1.3bn loss. Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a $475m loss in 2022. In 2021, Australia recorded a $46.8m loss to online dating scams. An analysis of the FTC data from 2016 to 2020 revealed a steady increase in the amount of money lost and the number of cases reported. ProPrivacy further noted that about 60 per cent of all online dating profiles were either fake or inactive, stating that most of the scams happened on social media and online forums. Findings from the digital resource platform stated that dating scams were part of an organised crime where the perpetrators use “psychological profiling, elaborate plans, and algorithms to create enticing profiles” that their victims can easily fall in love with. The FTC stated that the scammers mostly lied to their victims about their inability to come for a physical meeting or being on a faraway military base or being an offshore oil rig worker. Another lie is those who claim to be successful cryptocurrency investors and are willing to teach the victim how it is done. On the website of the American Association of Retired Persons, a social psychologist, Justin Lehmiller, attributed the desperation for an emotional or intimate connection as the reason the victims accept and hold on to such relationships despite what often appear as unreasonable demands. Statista noted that the revenue in the online dating market was projected to reach $5.1m in 2023 with a projected growth rate of 17.6 per cent. For Nigeria, it projected a 1.23 per cent growth rate from 2023 to 2027, which would result in a market volume of $22.1m in 2027. This data reflects the increase in online dating sites and apps in the country. Undoubtedly, this has created more room for an increase in online dating scams and extortion. Foreign victims On May 11, a court in Singapore sentenced a Singaporean who fell in love with a member of a Nigerian criminal group to 18 weeks in prison for using her bank account to receive and transfer monies from several scam victims in Singapore. According to local media reports, between February 7 and 22, 2019, her bank account was used to receive $65,000 from multiple scam victims in the country. The Nigerian lover was noted to have fallen in love and impregnated another Singaporean woman earlier in the year. The latter was sent to 15 months in jail for helping another person retain the benefits of criminal conduct to the tune of $356,000. Recently, the Nigeria Police Force National Cybercrime Center arrested two men over a romance scam, criminal conspiracy and identity theft in Abuja. The duo, Jerry Okoye and Ifeanyi Nwosu, were accused of criminal conspiracy and identity theft. According to a statement issued by the Force Public Relations Officer, Okoye, identified as a former student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, used Facebook as his main tool to engage in criminal activities. He said Okoye admitted he had been committing the crime since 2014, and that his phone contained evidence of the crime. Nwosu, whom the police identified as his close associate, was said to be involved in “cash exchanges” with a 69-year-old white woman, identified as Winnie. The duo, who both claimed to be in the music industry, were together for a recording session at the time they were apprehended by the police. Adejobi said, “However, he admitted to having a unique connection with a 69-year-old white woman known as Winnie, whom he identifies as both a fan and a friend. This connection goes beyond casual friendship as evidence indicating a series of cash exchanges between Ifeanyi Nwosu and the elderly woman have come to light.” Recently, two Nigerians were arrested and extradited to the United States for sexually extorting two American teenagers. The crime led to the death by suicide of one of the teenagers. In September 2021, the US court sentenced a 36-year-old Nigerian, Afeez Adebara, to four years’ imprisonment “for managing a group of money launderers” who defrauded several victims across the country. The group engaged in romance scams using online dating sites and got about $2.5m under the guise of being US residents working abroad and in need of funds to return to the country or implement a project. Extortion, payback for slave trade Raising the hopes of their victims they mostly meet on dating sites and social media, through flowery promises of love, expressive desire to spend forever with them and a blissful ever after, were the tactics romance scammers, sextortionists and cybercriminals, in general, use to bait their victims. An acclaimed reformed romance scammer, who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity, confirmed that their target victims were usually foreigners. Payback for the slave trade and alleged exploitation of Nigerians by foreigners were some of the motives the reformed scammer gave for such actions. He further noted that the state of the economy, greedy leaders and poverty were factors that lured youths into the crime. He noted that he was plunged into deep lack and poverty after the demise of his father during his first year at the Federal University of Owerri, Imo State. He said he embraced the trade as a means of survival. “It’s like a trap; once one gets into it, one gets carried away with it, especially the good feeling that comes with spending free money,” he told our correspondent. He explained that the trade is often accompanied by days of hunger until a victim falls into the trick and then serves as a buffer against the dark days. He added, “We don’t believe it’s free money; we call it hustle, because we stay up all night and do all we need to do and some people do dubious things to extort the whites of their money.” Being materialistic was the Achilles heel of cybercriminals, the reformed scammer submitted, and for him, he splurged on clothes and gadgets, before he was reformed. He added that his changed behaviour and attempts at making amends with those he defrauded had led to a real relationship between himself and some of his victims. “At some point, I began to reveal myself to those I scammed to let them know (who I am) because I know the pain that comes from raising someone’s hopes, letting them know how you love and want to be with them and how your lives would be blissful together but all a lie, and with the intention to con them out of their money,” the FUTO graduate said. He pointed out that the unemployment rate and lack of jobs were not the reasons he and his colleagues ventured into the trade but the desire to “oppress our mates, drive exotic cars, wear designer clothes and expensive wristwatches, travel around and have fun.” He said given their qualifications, there were not many jobs that could avail them of such life of luxury, since they were also not tech professionals. On why foreigners were their prime targets, the FUTO graduate said it was revenge against the enslavement and “deceit” of their forebears by the Europeans. He added, “The person who introduced me to it gave me some orientation that whatever I was doing, I shouldn’t go back because we were trying to get back what the slave masters collected from us. They deceived us by coming with mirrors and radios and we gave them humans in return as slaves. So, the orientation is all about doing what we do to get back what has been taken from us.” But whenever he was accosted by the police for his appearance and expensive gadgets, he said he bailed himself to prevent spending the night in jail, as he accused some policemen of arresting some of the scammers to extort them and in some cases, “teach them how to scam others”. He admitted that some end up being paraded and prosecuted. Sadly, such crimes have continued to project the country and its citizens in bad light in the international space. In a shaky voice, he said, “It was not the life that I wanted; I never believed I would do something like that. I lost my father in my first year (in the university) and there was no support. There were times I couldn’t sit exams because I had yet to pay my fees. I worked in a factory from 7am to 7pm and I was paid N13,000. If I was to venture into a business and I needed to take a loan, the interest rate is too high.” More Nigerian victims “I did (sent him some money) and I thought I was helping a friend,” were the remarks of a lady on X (formerly Twitter) with the handle, @elsavanilla, when she recently made a post about a Tweep she accused of being a liar and thief. Her initial post read, “This is …He is a scammer. He enters the girls DMs, makes them comfortable talking to him and then proceeds to fall deathly ill. For me, he had heart surgery, and for Bolu he had spinal surgery. He is a liar and a thief. The handle he used to talk to me has been deactivated. I reached out to his friends who knew him but none of them wanted anything to do with the situation at hand. Beware.” Under the tweet, some other ladies in the comment section began narrating their interactions with the alleged scammer. Didi, with the handle @ro_ssie, sent screenshots of the conversation with the suspect whom she stated requested money for his birthday. “This guy has been in my DM!! OMG, the reason I probably didn’t give in to the whole birthday thing is because I am careful who I give money to,” she tweeted. Another tweep, @Abiisoye, said, “Lol, he told me his father died on his birthday. Plenty of stories. Also mentioned needing money for one thing and I sent it. I’ve been waiting for this day.” A verified handle of a lady with the name, Peace Aisosa, commented, “Are you serious? He was my senior in school and I’ve sent money a few times for the heart surgery and health issues. I was thinking about reaching out to him asking about his health yesterday.” Female perpetrators Perhaps the adage, what a man can do, a woman can do better, was the motivation behind a sextortionist, identified by the police as 26-year-old Joan Opara. Opara was said to have met her lover via an online dating app and the love between them extended to intimate sessions. Unknown to the man, the lady recorded their intimate sessions and took pictures of the man’s apartment. She then requested a sum of money with the threat of exposing their intimate sessions if the demands were not met. The Force Public Relations Officer, Muyiwa Adejobi, while narrating this incident during a live Facebook broadcast on September 9, called for “discretion and vigilance while navigating online platforms, especially when personal and intimate information is involved.” He added, “Upon the complainant’s courageous decision to report this heinous act to the NPF–National Cybercrime Centre, investigators took swift action, leading to the arrest of the perpetrator.” The FPRO noted that the investigation revealed that the lady was a serial sextortionist and had engaged in similar actions with other individuals she met through the dating app, revealing a disturbing pattern of behaviour. He advised, “Protect your personal information, including your home address, financial details and intimate content. Do not share sensitive data with individuals you meet online until you are certain of their trustworthiness.” Beware not to fall victim! Cybersecurity experts noted that victims on social media platforms and dating sites, where people mostly fall victim, were lonely and in need of attention. They noted that this need is then exploited by scammers who, after gaining their trust and confidence, begin to subtly demand for money and favours. A technology policy analyst, data protection and cybersecurity lawyer, Moses Faya, stated that the abuse of social media platforms, dating site applications and other tech tools by cybercriminals had led to an increase in crimes generally. He stated that dating sites needed to put in place verification measures to ensure the authenticity of the users and tools that would help users report suspected scammers. Faya added, “Most of the scammers take advantage of dating sites because of the anonymity they offer. As such, two persons could be chatting and none of them would know whether the other was a male or female or a chatbox because the verification methods are not being done. Most platforms need to increase their standards for people to use their platforms.” He explained that some people might have started the relationship genuinely but decided to take advantage of the other person’s willingness to give and help. He therefore urged people to check out the reviews of an application, site or platform before downloading and/or signing up on the site. He stated, “Users need to be aware of who they are having conversations with when online. One needs to be vigilant during communication and look out for red flags and inconsistencies.” Also, a cybersecurity engineer, Precious Olives, noted that scammers sometimes exploit the sense of fear, love, uncertainty and urgency to ensure their victims heed their demands. He noted that romance scammers and sextortionists could deduce from an individual’s profile and exploit such information for their gain. Olives stressed that individuals who want to share sensitive images or videos should ensure that the privacy settings on their applications were set to their preferences to prevent sending them to the wrong platforms inadvertently. Olives added, “Make use of reputable applications. There are a lot of dating apps these days and new ones come in every day and one cannot be sure of the reputation of all of them. Some of the apps can have glitches which sometimes might not be one’s fault but that of the company, and lots of accounts could be lost to that. “Another thing users need to do is a proper verification of profiles. It is not bad to know the personal information of the person you want to share nudes with. It does not sound ridiculous to request where the person works and for them to show a means of identification, just to be sure. Once things go south, you can trace them to their roots and their workplace. So when people communicate with individuals they meet on dating sites and apps, they should learn how to verify their profiles and who they are.” Olives urged individuals to turn on, review and adjust their gadget’s privacy settings in a way that it protects them. This, he said, would help to ensure control, adding that people could restrict applications that could access, share or receive certain documents. He added, “It is necessary that when sending sex tapes, you do not show your face. Refrain from exposing your body during video calls but if you must, ensure that your face is not showing. This is because, during a video call, the other party could be recording the screen. “Trust your instincts, they are good. Also, trust gradually. While sending your nudes to your spouse, ensure the necessary safety locks but you also can’t tell who has access to their phones. Some people can pick the nudes of someone else from their phones without their knowledge. “Also, maintain clear boundaries and communicate your boundaries. Reduce your limit to personal information.” In his reaction, the Head, Clinical Psychologist of Intersect Consortium, Alexander Agara, stated that victims often believe the situation would be better whilst trapped in the cycle. He noted that victims who desire and seek romantic attention would see the relationship as transactional and continue to yield to the request of the threat actor, “with the hope of holding on to that person and making the relationship stronger, however, they wouldn’t know that it’s extortion until it’s too late and they have invested so much.” On what victims can do, the clinical psychologist noted that it was difficult for the victims to open up due to the trauma of the event. He said, “Such traumatised individuals could also start experiencing some psychological symptoms such as social withdrawal and anxiety. Such persons can call and report to the authorities. But is there a law against sextortion? As I speak to you, I’ve never checked that. “So it’s always a difficult thing. At the end of the day, I will say 70 to 80 per cent of people who are sexually extorted are unable to report the situation. The only way to move on is to stop the relationship when it becomes transactional. So, people should always be careful. “Ensure that you understand the level of the relationship and if the person likes you before you start giving out things, but the moment the person keeps asking for things like it’s a trade, then that’s a sign of danger.” Agara urged victims to speak to reliable persons like counsellors and psychologists to get the needed help to overcome the trauma. Smart scammers need smart law enforcers – Don Meanwhile, a professor of law and applied jurisprudence, Faculty of Law, Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, Anambra State, Ikenga Oraegbunam, noted that victims of online dating scams faced the challenges of distance, anonymity of the perpetrators, the fluidity of the act which at times hindered investigation and prosecution as well as the knowledge of judges in dealing with issues of the internet. Oraegbunam, a reverend father, noted however that victims, regardless of their location, could still pursue justice by going through the Ministry of Justice or the equivalence in their countries if they have the wherewithal. He stated, “Internet offenders are smart and that is why they are called schemers, so (getting justice for victims) would require very smart law enforcement agents and judicial officers to deal with such a crime. The issue of prosecution and investigation of cybercrime is not easy because of the transnational nature of such acts.” He further noted that the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc.) Act, 2015, criminalised cybercrime, stating that the unclear definition of cyberspace posed a problem in determining the geographical location where a crime originated from and was completed. Oraegbunam stated that although sextortion and romance scams were not found as crimes in the Cybercrime Act, identity theft, cyber defamation, bullying and terrorism were crimes the threat actors could be charged with. The professor stated, “One of the ways of investigating and countering the crime is by what is known as extradition. For example, when someone in Nigeria has committed a crime against someone in another country, Nigeria may not have enough tools to prosecute and investigate it, there can be an option of extradition of the offender to the country where the crime has been committed and this has been made possible through the cybercrime act.” He urged online users to be careful while surfing the internet and when dating sites. Tackling the crime A Deputy Commissioner of Police and Director of the NPF-NCCC, Ifeanyi Uche, stated that romance scams and sextortion, among other cybercrimes, were on the rise. He added that data from the centre revealed that most victims of the crimes were foreigners, and that until recently, there were recorded cases of victims from Nigeria. Uche further affirmed that the victims comprised of both men and women, stating that the motive of the perpetrators was to get money from the victim. The DCP noted that the perpetrators sometimes meet the victims on dating sites, while urging individuals who use such sites to be careful of the activities done on the sites. He stated, “Most of the suspects use an app called voice changer. Some of them upload pictures of young ladies as their profile picture, whereas guys are behind it. Once they gain the confidence of their victim by expressing and gaining love, they begin to demand for money and present themselves as belonging to the United States Army, naval officers or doctors or engineers in Ukraine or Afghanistan and need to send money to their families.” He called for cyber-hygiene and awareness to ensure safety on the Internet. The director further noted that most Nigerians were unaware of what to do when blackmailed or extorted online, adding that shame over the issue often prevented them from reporting at the police station. To resolve this problem, the director stated that the NPF-NCC had created an e-reporting portal and official email where the victims could report the cases. He added, “We have recovered quite a lot of money for the victims who reported via this channel, including a Polish, Slovenian and Nigerian and we were able to get the suspect. The channel is working. “I know of the fact that most of them still go to the police station to report but we are doing a lot to build the capacity in our police stations, at the command and station levels, so that they would know what to do and to help victims of cybercrimes.”

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