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General News of Sunday, 5 November 2006

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Online dating scams from Ghana on the rise

The U.S. embassy in Accra, Ghana, reports receiving up to 15 calls a week from Americans who have lost money on relationship scams originating in Ghana....

Online dating scams on the rise in the U.S.

HAMPTON FALLS -- Scam artists are tapping into the online dating market, and in two cases in Hampton Falls, have stolen thousands of dollars from women who thought they had a romantic relationship.

The Hampton Falls Police Department is investigating two cases of online fraud.

The local women were duped out of thousands of dollars they'll likely never recover, Police Chief Robbie Dirsa said.

It could happen to anyone, said Dirsa, whose officer, Jeremy Tetreault, spoke at an identity theft seminar in Hampton this past Thursday.

Dirsa described both victims as professional women scammed by expert salesmen.

One case began in January 2002, he said, after one woman met a man online through the Yahoo Personals. She loaned him, over the course of more than a year, $109,000 for his alleged trucking business, Dirsa said.

The couple had a few dates, Dirsa said, though police are investigating whether the man she dated is the same person she met online or someone sent to get the money. The man she dated is described as a white male, in his 50s. She said he lived in-state.

Police know very little about him, even though they have a name and an e-mail address.

"We don't know whether he lives in New Hampshire or not," Dirsa said. "He has a name that is common."

He never repaid any amount of the loan, and the woman hasn't heard from him.

"Like they tell you, anybody can buy anything on the Internet," Dirsa said. "These cases are tough. People play into emotions."

Some people are embarrassed to come forward and admit they've been taken, Dirsa said. This may be particularly true of senior citizens who respond to e-mail requests for money.

"I wonder how many people lose a thousand, lose two thousand, and not report it," he said.

This spring, another female resident said she began e-mailing a man she met through an online dating service. She never met him in person. He told her he was an American citizen working in Nigeria. He began making requests for cash. She sent him at least $10,000, Dirsa said.

She then received a letter and a $7,500 check from a woman across the country who asked her to send the money to him. When she tried to wire the money, the company stopped her from sending it, Dirsa said.

Schemes out of Nigeria are notorious, he said, because the country will do nothing to cooperate with U.S. investigations of Internet fraud.

"This is money absolutely gone," he said.

Because he had no fear of being prosecuted, the man continued to ask the woman for money even after he knew she had gone to law enforcement.

The woman who sent the money cross-country got her $7,500 back, Dirsa said. She also believed she had a romantic e-mail relationship with the man.

"They know how to tap into someone's emotions," Dirsa said. Americans, he said, "want to help the underdog."

Dirsa brought the cases to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Portsmouth. In the case of the first woman, he said, the man may have given her a false identity, which would help in prosecuting him criminally.

Internet scams are very prevalent, said Gail Marcinkiewicz, a Boston spokeswoman for the FBI. She had no statistics for online dating fraud.

"It also happens with off-line relationships," she said, "(The person says) let me invest your money.' So many people give away money they should be careful about."

Internet complaints are sent to the National White Collar Crime Center in Richmond, Va., which works with the FBI, Marcinkiewicz said. Victims are encouraged to make complaints to www.ifccfbi.gov.

Cases may not meet prosecution guidelines unless investigators see a pattern, Marcinkiewicz said.

The top 10 states for Internet fraud include no New England states. The list does include California, Texas, Florida and New York.

Christian Desilets, a resource attorney with the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), responded to an e-mail request for information.

To his knowledge, he said, the exact dimensions of Internet dating fraud have not been measured with any degree of certainty. There is, he said, a great deal of anecdotal evidence "that points to it being a widespread phenomenon."

Julie Ferguson, executive director of The Merchant Risk Council, according to Desilets, is reported to have noticed a marked upturn in the number of calls she receives on Internet dating fraud, from one call every three months to "one every couple of weeks or so."

Dating sites and chat rooms are one of the primary means by which suspects make contact with new victims, according to information given to Desilets by Supervisory Special Agent Dale Miskell.

Miskell is in charge of an FBI CyberCrime squad in Birmingham, Ala., and has worked extensively with Nigerian authorities to combat reshipping schemes. This is when online thieves purchase items with stolen credit cards and have them sent to an innocent party to be shipped out of the country.

Miskell also investigates check or money-order fraud, when the suspect sends the victim a fraudulent check or money order to cash and then has the innocent party wire him or her the money before the bank discovers the instrument was fraudulent.

The U.S. embassy in Accra, Ghana, reports receiving up to 15 calls a week from Americans who have lost money on relationship scams originating in Ghana, Desilets said. There are also official warnings from the State Department with regard to dating scams originating from the Ukraine.

To shed some light on the scope of the problem, several e-groups and Web communities exist for networking between victims, Desilets said. A prominent one is http://groups.yahoo.com/group/romancescams/.

"While a victim may certainly pursue civil routes to recovery (as the criminal system is less geared to restoring the victim's lost money than the civil system), there is no doubt that it is also a criminal matter," he said, subject to fine and imprisonment.

As a practical matter, criminal prosecution is difficult, particularly when the case involves an investigation overseas.

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