‘I met a guy on the internet, but he keeps asking me for money’
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ToI investigationWhen Maya thought she met Darren

‘I met a guy on the internet, but he keeps asking me for money’

Romance scams are soaring globally, including in Israel. Here's the lowdown on how one woman got fooled, how and where the scammers operate, and how to avoid getting duped yourself

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo (iStock)
Illustrative photo (iStock)

Maya, a divorced 45-year-old preschool teacher and holistic therapist from central Israel, has always believed in romantic destiny, in meeting a soul mate who would seem familiar to her soon after she had met him.

That’s why, when a man named Darren Hartman, an American Apache Helicopter Pilot stationed in Afghanistan, contacted her on Tinder, she decided she wanted to get to know him better.

“I noticed he was over 1,000 kilometers away,” said Maya (who asked that we not use her real name). “But I was open, because I thought, ‘maybe I need to be with a foreign guy.’”

Darren was gentlemanly and polite and did not immediately talk about sex like many Israeli men do in her experience. He wrote to her multiple times a day, asking how she was doing and expressing empathy.

He told her his life’s story: that his father was German and his mother American and that at the age of 17 he moved to the United States with his mother, where he enlisted in the US Army. His ex-wife cheated on him. But he still believed in love. He was devoted to the army but was also looking forward to meeting the right woman and retiring.

A photo of “Darren Hartman” sent to an Israeli woman who met him on Tinder (Courtesy)

It did not hurt that the photos he sent Maya were of a very handsome, physically fit man with brown hair, blue eyes, and an open, kind expression. In some photos, he was horsing around with his young child. In others, he wore military fatigues.

One day Darren told Maya his grandmother had been named Batya — like Pharaoh’s daughter.

Maya immediately said, “your grandmother must have been Jewish!”

Darren confirmed this.

She asked if she had died during World War II and he said yes.

“How did she die?” Maya asked.

Darren replied that he did not know, that every time his father tried to talk about it, he started to cry. “Maybe when we meet we can go ask him together,” he wrote.

Believing that his grandmother had perished in the Holocaust made Maya feel close to Darren.

“I imagined when we met in person I would take him to the Diaspora Museum and Yad Vashem and we would give them the names of his grandparents, Batya and Otto.”

Maya told Darren about her life as well, about interesting things she had read and about being a single mother to a teenage daughter. It was rare to meet a man who was so tuned in to her.

For instance, Maya was a breast cancer survivor and coincidentally Darren told her his mother had died of breast cancer. In retrospect, she realizes he must have studied her Facebook profile for clues of what to talk to her about. But at the time, she felt she had never experienced such a strong connection in such a short time.

“Sweet dreams,” he would text before she went to sleep at night.

“How are you doing?” he would text her in the morning.

Soon he was telling her that he knew she was “the one,” and that he wanted to plan a future together.

Part of a chat between “Darren Hartman” and Maya, October 2017 (Courtesy)

“I guess that was strange that he wanted something serious without having ever met in person. I used to tell him we have to meet and see how it goes.”

Maya now realizes that should have been a red flag.

“But I had built up a whole idea of him in my head and I wanted it to be true. I imagined myself welcoming him at the airport and wondering if we would feel ‘the connection.'”

About a week into their relationship, Darren made plans to visit Maya in Israel. To get approval, he told her — and other ostensible US military officials confirmed in emails to her — she would have to fill out an official US military leave request form, which they did together. He would only be granted leave, she was told, if a “significant other” formally requested it.

A US army official contacted her and asked her to pay $1,000 for the application and then another $1,300 to get him the leave. These payments were to show she was serious about meeting Darren and having him take leave from the army for her, she was told.  Not to worry, Darren assured her, he would return the money as soon as he arrived in Israel; he simply did not have access to his bank account from his army base in Afghanistan.

A copy of one of the forms Maya was asked to fill out by her online beau (Courtesy)

Maya paid the $2,300 total, to a certain “Christy Perkins” at a Western Union in Florida, but soon afterward she was contacted by one of Darren’s commanders asking her to pay another $2,500 for a plane ticket. The commander sent what looked like official documents signed by US military personnel.

That’s when Maya contacted The Times of Israel.

“I am confused and upset,” she wrote. “I met a guy on the internet, but he keeps asking for money.”

When this reporter suggested she was being scammed, Maya wasn’t ready to accept it.

“If this is a scam, it’s very detailed and complex,” she wrote in a text message.

The Times of Israel helped Maya do a Google image search of Darren Hartman’s photos and found a site, romancescam.com, where multiple women from around the world said they had been scammed using the same photos. One woman knew the man in the photos as Martin Cowles, another as Zane Martin. In each case his age and personal biography differed slightly.

Further internet sleuthing revealed that Maya’s “boyfriend” was actually one or more individuals in Nigeria. Maya’s first instinct was to contact the man in the photos and inform him that his photo was being used by scammers. The thought was exciting to her because she was still infatuated with him, even though she realized the man in the photos was a different person than the man she had fallen for.

But this remaining fantasy was smashed when a few more hours of internet research revealed the man in the photos to be Martin Anthony, a 31-year-old from Indianapolis who was serving an 8-year prison sentence for shooting at a car with teenage girls inside.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “It felt like a real relationship. But everything about it was fake.”

The photos “Darren” sent to Maya turned out to belong to a convicted felon from Indianapolis (Screenshot IndyStar.com)

Maya lost $2,300, about a month’s salary, in the scam, and she has become so depressed since the incident that she made an appointment to start seeing a therapist.

Many victims of romance scams fare much worse. The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) website describes the story of a woman who lost $2 million to a fake online beau.

The FBI received 15,000 complaints from around the world related to romance scams in 2016, up by 2,500 from the year before

According to the FBI, the victims of romance scams are predominantly older widowed or divorced women and the perpetrators are often criminal groups operating from Nigeria. The fraudsters study the women’s online profiles carefully to figure out how to connect with them. According to the FBI’s internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), romance scams are not the most common form of cyber fraud, but they result in the highest losses to victims compared with other online crimes.

The FBI received 15,000 complaints from around the world related to romance scams in 2016, up by 2,500 from the year before. Romance scams are a growth industry, explained the FBI, because they are low-risk and high reward. The chance of most law enforcement bodies prosecuting a crime that crosses multiple jurisdictions is small.

Kelsey Pietranton, a spokesman for the FBI, told the Times of Israel that anyone, anywhere in the world, who has been a victim of a romance scam or other online scam should contact their local law enforcement authorities as well as file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

On its website, the FBI offers tips for how to protect yourself from romance scammers.

The Times of Israel also contacted the Israeli police about romance scams. While acknowledging that it is a common and growing form of fraud, the Israeli police were unable to provide The Times of Israel with any information about how widespread it is in Israel.

Maya thinks it highly unlikely that she is “Darren’s” only victim, since he must have used the Tinder Passport Feature, and set it to women near Tel Aviv, to meet her. And he clearly did a bit of research into Jewish history and Hebrew names.

Anecdotally, Hebrew media have carried numerous stories of people who fell in love online and were bilked out of large sums of money. In most cases the victims are women, and the men they become involved with are Israeli, perhaps because when it comes to matters of the heart, many Israelis find it easier to communicate in their native language.

Stealing their hearts, and savings

Tzvika Graiver, a lawyer who is the cofounder and chairman of the Keep Olim in Israel Movement, told The Times of Israel that he has become an expert in scams “because I represent new immigrants to Israel and new immigrants are a population that is constantly getting cheated and swindled.”

Graiver has represented three female victims of romance fraud. Two are single mothers and one is married. All three are in their 30s, younger than the typical romance scam victim. The two single mothers met their fraudsters on dating sites while the married woman was approached in a cafe by a smooth-talking Lothario.

Tzvika Graiver, lawyer and advocate for new immigrants from the Keep Olim in Israel movement (Photo credit: Facebook)

The first woman, a single mother, and immigrant from the US, was contacted on Facebook by a stranger who asked to “friend” her. A romance blossomed, they met, and he eventually moved into her apartment where he began to live at her expense. He told her he was in the home heating business but seemed to spend a lot of time around the house. One day he asked her for a loan, which he promised to pay back in a few months. He did in fact begin to repay her, but the payments were merely a portion of the amount she had given him. Eight months into their relationship, he disappeared with all his belongings. When she called him, he blew her off, then changed his phone number.

“All in all, he stole NIS 100,000 from her (about $28,000), NIS 130,000 minus the NIS 30,000 that he returned. I tracked him down,” said Graiver. “He’s 40 and he lives with his parents. But there’s no way to prove she didn’t give him the money as a gift.”

The second woman was the single mother of an autistic child. She met her beau on OKCupid. He promised to help her with her daughter as well as her addiction to painkillers. Instead, he repeatedly asked her for money and eventually stole her identity, taking out loans and a credit card in her name in the United States. In total, he stole over NIS 100,000.

“I think he’s a serial fraudster,” said Graiver. “Shortly afterward he met the married woman,” his next victim, “in a cafe, and romanced her with over-the-top compliments. She is also a client of mine. He stole over NIS 300,000 (about $85,000) from her and threatened to tell her husband if she ever goes to the police.”

The Israeli police, said Graiver, have been useless in all three cases.

“We live in a country where the streets are relatively safe, and where if a criminal is caught in the act, he is likely to be arrested and prosecuted,” he said. “But when it comes to carrying out an investigation, the police are lazy and in over their heads. Almost every single client of mine who has complained to police has had their case closed within a short period of time.”

Israel Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told The Times of Israel that all complaints are taken seriously and that even if the scammer is thought to be in Nigeria, the Israeli police will contact their Nigerian counterparts and ask for assistance.

Country-specific expertise

In their academic paper “Sweetheart of a Deal: How people get hooked and reeled in by financial scams,” sociologists Deborah Gregory and Bistra Nikiforova of the University of New England describe how different countries specialize in different types of romance scams. There are two global hubs of sweetheart swindles, they explain. Russia specializes in romance scams with female seductresses, while Nigerian scammers impersonate both females and males.

The fictional men and women of romance scams tend to conform to old-fashioned stereotypes of what the other gender is seeking, although there is a sub-genre of same-sex romance scams as well. The “women” scammers in romance scams tend to be involved in the fashion industry and their one outstanding attribute is their beauty, according to Gregory and Nikiforova. Often the woman is in some kind of distress, evoking an urge in the man to rescue and protect her.

“The woman talks about herself,” they write, “which leads the man to realize how lucky he is to have this beautiful woman interested in him and underscores his specialness. There is little rational justification why these two particular people should be together, as the communication exchanges are very one-sided with no substantive dialogue taking place.”

The romance scams designed to hook women have an altogether different dynamic, explain the authors.

When it comes to men scamming women, the scammers focus on the woman herself, “providing feedback to her wants and desires (conveniently provided on her profile), as well as praising her beauty. The purported suitor’s personal history frequently matches that of his victim, making him seem more empathetic. With the Nigerian dating scams, the question, ‘why me?’ is nonexistent because scammers make it sound natural for people who share somewhat similar biographical stories to be attracted to one another. ‘[W]e seemed to have a lot in common, including the fact that we were both so sick of the games, had both been divorced, and had children.’”

What Israel can learn from Nigeria

The Times of Israel reached out to Professor Tade Oludayo of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, one of the world’s foremost experts in romance scams, to ask who is behind these scams and how they have affected Nigerian society and its economy.

The Times of Israel also asked if Nigeria’s experience offers any lessons to Israel, which in the past decade has developed a huge internet scam industry in its own right.

Israeli fraudsters specialize in extortion, CEO scams, investment scams, lead generation scams, spyware, phishing, lottery scams, gambling, and payment processing for fake pharma, a British forensic researcher recently told The Times of Israel, to the tune of more than $10 billion a year, with almost no arrests or convictions by police.

Nigerian fraudsters specialize in advance fee fraud and romance scams. While the two economies are vastly different (the average salary in Nigeria is $3,500 a year while in Israel it’s $30,000), there are nevertheless striking points of comparison when it comes to those who engage in fraud for a living.

Types of cybercrime by number of reported incidents, according to the FBI (Screenshot www.ic3.gov)

Oludayo told The Times of Israel that romance scams are the most common entry point for Nigerian cyber criminals, many of whom are university students or recent graduates. No one can accurately estimate the size of Nigeria’s cyber-fraud industry, although some have put the number at $12 billion annually.

Nigerian romance scammers are organized groups of collaborators who surf the internet looking for women in developed countries and pose as “big” men who have lots of money and are doing big, important things in their lives, Oludayo went on. They invest a lot of time and effort into building a close relationship and can wait up to three or four months before asking for money from their victims.

Most people in Nigeria are aware of internet fraud, Oludayo told The Times of Israel, which is referred to as “yahoo yahoo.” In 2015 Nigeria even passed a law against it.

While the majority of Nigerians abhor the scams, which are primarily perpetrated by people under 30, he lamented that “the popular culture celebrates it through music. And the fact that these songs are not sanctioned from being aired shows state complicity.”

Oludayo added, “I am currently working on a paper entitled ‘Glamorization of Cybercrimes in Selected Nigerian Hip-Hop Songs.”

In response to what many perceive as the glamorization of scam culture, some of Nigeria’s most popular recording artists got together to create a video entitled “Maga No Need Pay,” encouraging young people not to get involved in scams. “Maga” is the Nigerian slang word for a dupe or victim.

In words that might also apply to Israel, one singer raps: “My nation’s reputation suffers much condemnation. This is our situation. Are we cybercrime criminals? No! We are the mineral resources of our fatherland. We must rise and take a stand.”

“I am living proof that there is dignity in labor,” sings another.

In October 2017, the Knesset voted unanimously to shut down Israel’s binary options industry, a different but not unrelated form of cyber fraud estimated to have brought in between $5 billion and $10 billion a year for a decade and to have fleeced millions of people worldwide. One of the arguments for shutting the industry down was that it did massive damage to Israel’s reputation worldwide. And yet, just as in Nigeria, cybercrime in Israel is resilient. Just weeks after the law passed, Israeli job boards are again currently full of advertisements from online “broker” companies seeking salespeople with experience in forex or binary options.

Tade Oludayo (Facebook)

Oludayo said that while the scams bring a lot of money into the Nigerian economy, the country pays a price in terms of its reputation and internal corruption.

“Cybercriminals make a lot of money from their business and use it to buy exotic cars, attend clubs and date ladies. They live flamboyant lives which attract others to join the business. And because some of them are children of rich people in the society, they are easily let off the hook when arrested.”

But despite the fact that scammers are a tiny minority of Nigerian society, the entire nation suffers the fallout.

“It should be noted that the number of cybercriminals is an insignificant proportion of those involved in legitimate businesses even in Nigeria,” said Oludayo. “But cybercrime negatively affects the image of the country and affects the image of Nigerians who travel abroad, as this label is usually attached to them and most of the time it forms the basis of the relationship people have with them.”

Nevertheless, Oludayo stressed that it is the victims who suffer the most. “It destroys the lives of the people duped, leading to psycho-social problems, including problems of trust with people,” he said.

Maya, the Israeli woman who was taken in by romance scammers, concurs.

“I tried to get over it by telling myself I have to move on. But I think this experience will be with me for a long time because I had built this whole relationship and trusted him. It’s really a shock. I noticed that I have been really down compared to how I was before this happened.

“It hurt me financially,” she said, “and I guess I was a lot more emotionally involved than I realized.”

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