Romance scams: ‘These guys might have 40 or 50 women on the go’

“While the criminals were operating locally, their ringmasters were based, Cryan believes, in Lagos. “Generally speaking, if it is a romance scam then it is coming out of Nigeria or Ghana,” he says. “Those behind it are the Black Axe Gang, they are the biggest criminal organisation in the world and they run everything.””

Partial article below… full article: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/romance-scams-these-guys-might-have-40-or-50-women-on-the-go-1.4780703

ISOLATION HAS BEEN LINKED TO INCREASES IN CASES OF ‘ROMANCE FRAUD’, WHERE GANGS GAIN ACCESS TO VICTIMS’ BANK ACCOUNTS VIA THEIR HEARTS

There are people sitting in office cubicles in a warehouse in the Nigerian city* of Lagos right now sweet-talking Irish people with the intention of stealing their hearts. And their money.

The malicious romancing is not just happening in Lagos and there are other warehouses, office buildings and non-descript suburban houses all over the world – including in Ireland – where criminals are reading from scripts written by malevolent Cyrano de Bergerac and using images of postcard pretty people downloaded from the internet to woo the innocent before ripping them off and breaking their hearts.

Since the start of the pandemic almost two years ago, romance fraud has ramped up all over the world with Ireland as vulnerable to the menace as anywhere else. According to Garda figures, incidences of the crime jumped by 150 per cent in 2020 with a similar spike recorded in 2021.

To put such percentages into context: in 2019 about €400,000 was lost by lovesick Irish people. With the country in lockdown for much of 2020 and people isolated and more lonely than before, that figure jumped to more than €1 million.

Meeting the love of her life and making millions into the bargain? It all seemed too good to be true. And it was

And that is only the money the authorities know has gone missing. Given the personal nature of the crime and the misplaced sense of embarrassment many attach to falling victim to it, far more losses are likely to go unreported.

“Romance fraud is one of the biggest money-making crimes out there,”says cyber crime specialist Det Supt Michael Cryan from his office in Harcourt Street, Dublin 2.

The fraud is as simple as it is vicious. Victims are targeted online and lured into fake romantic relationships by criminals using bogus identities. A long game is played, with trust built up over months if not years. Once that trust has been established, the thieves strike. Victims are asked for money, maybe so their “new love” can visit or help a sick family member. Sometimes their new love has a plan to invest for the “benefit” of the victim.

Then when the criminals have taken what they can, they vanish.

Given the cross-border nature of the crime it is hard to catch the perpetrators. Hard, but not impossible.

In 2019 gardaí received a complaint from a woman who had seen her bank account drained of €280,000 over a period of months in a series of increasingly complicated scams carried out by the same criminals.

The first point of contact was a dating app and that first contact came from a “professional” man who said he was based overseas. Long-distance romance blossomed before her new friend tipped her off to a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity. It was an elaborate ruse which saw her travelling to Dubai – at her own expense – to meet people she thought were senior executives in the business she was pumping her money into.

Meeting the love of her life and making millions into the bargain? It all seemed too good to be true. And it was. The hundreds of thousands of euro she invested over a nine-month period was funnelled through accounts in Ireland, Turkey, Dubai and Vietnam before disappearing.

Odd as it may sound she was lucky, as a subsequent investigation revealed she was on the cusp of losing even more money. When the whole thing unravelled, the woman went to the authorities. “We discovered the mails had been sent from Navan,” Det Supt Cryan says.

He still sounds surprised by that discovery almost two years on.

Officers from the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau raided the house. “We caught a man actually on the fake profile he had been using to communicate with nine different women in Ireland,” he says. Multiple arrests were made and three people pleaded guilty to crimes related to the fraud.

Since the start of the pandemic almost two years ago, romance fraud has ramped up all over the world. Photograph: iStock
SINCE THE START OF THE PANDEMIC ALMOST TWO YEARS AGO, ROMANCE FRAUD HAS RAMPED UP ALL OVER THE WORLD. PHOTOGRAPH: ISTOCK

Det Supt Cryan was tasked with phoning the women the Navan man had been stringing along. They were all at different stages of the scam and all dubious when his call came. “They were suspicious of me,” he says. “And I understand that. I had to tell them to call Harcourt St [Garda station] and to look me up online to convince them I was on their side.”

The arrest and subsequent guilty pleas of the criminals involved was a rare success tackling a crime that is, almost always, conducted by gangs based outside of Ireland and far out of reach of the authorities here. “This is the first time these guys have been caught in Ireland and until then my belief would always have been they were based overseas. One of them was in Dublin 15. I was driving by his home on the way into work each day, I could have hit his house with a stone,” Cryan says with the wryest of laughs.

‘We had one customer who invested €40,000 with a site which turned out to be fake’

While the criminals were operating locally, their ringmasters were based, Cryan believes, in Lagos. “Generally speaking, if it is a romance scam then it is coming out of Nigeria or Ghana,” he says. “Those behind it are the Black Axe Gang, they are the biggest criminal organisation in the world and they run everything.”

The article continues at it’s source: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/romance-scams-these-guys-might-have-40-or-50-women-on-the-go-1.4780703

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