Looking for love online? FBI warns scammers are looking for money

Also known as confidence scams or catfishing, the crimes often start on dating apps or social media sites, according to experts. — Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

With his salt-and-pepper hair and German accent, the handsome man who said he was from Atlanta gave Sandie plenty of attention when she needed it most.

Her husband and lifelong companion had died two years earlier, and she was lonely. An online dating website for older adults seemed like a great way to find love again.

Gifts, even a wedding dress, arrived at her home. But Sandie, a Missouri grandmother who asked that her full name not be used due to the nature of her ordeal, was repeatedly asked for money to help the man, who gave the name Anthony Thomas. He claimed he was a businessman and offered her a large return on her investment if she could send him money. When he told her he had been arrested in Eqypt and feared he was about to be beheaded, Sandie realized it was a scam.

“I’m really sorry. And that’s going to be a really bad way for you to die,” she deadpanned at the time, confident that the man, whatever his real name was, did not face a guillotine.

By then, she was out US$114,000 (RM495,843) and nearly lost her home, said, Sandie who discussed the episode in a video interview arranged by the FBI Atlanta office.

Online romance scams cost Americans more than US$739mil (RM3.2bil) last year, according to preliminary numbers from the FBI. Approximately 500 of the victims were here in Georgia, but those are only the cases being reported. The number of victims and the amount they’re scammed is on the rise, the FBI told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And the criminals use all sorts of tactics to convince unknowing victims to send them money.

“It is nothing new,” said Chris Macrae, assistant special agent in charge. “We’ve seen an explosion since the pandemic and everyone was shut down and the only option to interact and socialize with folks was to go online.”

Ahead of Valentine’s Day, investigators are warning anyone meeting people online to be wary. Scammers may be operating on a low level or be part of a much larger, even worldwide network. They have one goal: Making money.

“This is what they do,” Macrae said. “This is their job.”

How it happens

It may start out seeming innocent, investigators said. The scammers likely have done their research and know exactly who they’re targeting.

There’s likely a fake online photograph and entire profile, Macrae said. Multiple victims may be targeted at the same time by the same scammer, he said.

Last week, a man was arrested in connection with a series of robberies in South Fulton stemming from dating apps, police said. Police said that at least four men were targeted online through popular dating apps, including Grindr, which is used primarily by those in the LGBTQ community. The men were lured to an area along Old National Highway, where they were robbed at gunpoint, authorities said. The robberies happened in a span of about five weeks.

Sandie met the man she knew as Anthony on a website. They spoke several times by phone and had video chats, earning her initial trust. Now, the mastermind authorities say is behind the scheme that robbed Sandie is hiding in Nigeria to avoid his prison sentence in the US, according to the FBI.

Ugo Caesar Anele, who pleaded guilty to running an unlicensed money transmitting business after approximately US$1mil (RM4.3mil) was scammed from numerous victims, is a Nigerian native, according to FBI Special Agent Steve Evans.

Anele, who previously lived in Gwinnett County, was arrested on a federal wire fraud charge in 2018, Evans said. Then, the feds took a deeper look at Anele’s finances, Evans said.

“He was receiving money from all sorts of victims,” Evans told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Anele was the person who controlled the accounts that received the funds.”

One of his victims was Sandie, though she likely didn’t interact with him directly.

Anele was convicted of running an unlicensed money-transmitting business as part of a plea deal and sentenced to three years in federal prison. He was allowed to remain free until he was scheduled to report to a Texas prison in September 2020, Evans said.

Anele made it to Texas, but not to prison. In Houston, he was able to use the name and birth certificate of someone in Nigeria and catch a flight to Lagos, Evans said. Anele, who has not been arrested, was ordered to pay victims US$1mil (RM4.3bmil) in restitution, Evans said.

“If there’s a way to fleece money out of American victims, it’s being done,” Evans said. “And then it’s being sent overseas.”

How to avoid it

Also known as confidence scams or catfishing, the crimes often start on dating apps or social media sites, according to experts.

Social Catfish – a company that claims to verify online identities with reverse image searches – said it analyzed data from both the FBI and FTC and found that Georgia is the 19th most “catfished” state.

In 2021, 500 victims in the state lost more than US$13.7mil (RM59.5mil), averaging about US$27,000 (RM117,436) per victim, the company said.

“If something just seems too good to be true, no matter what it is, it always is,” Evans said.

Red flags include new online romancers who express their love too quickly, have excuses for why they can’t talk on the phone or meet in person or claim emergencies and ask for money. Sandie’s two-year relationship with “Anthony” ticked those boxes, she said.

“It’s very difficult being alone when you’ve been someone with all of your life,” she said. “It has caused me to be very skeptical. I’m not very trusting. It’s very, very hard.” The wedding dress, by the way, was far too big for her. She mailed it back to Atlanta. – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Tribune News Service

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