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The Sweetheart Scam

Published: 27 Jan 2010 22:08:32 PST

How it works

This scam is the most depressingly heartless fraud around and is most often associated with dating or 'introduction' sites such as Russian or Thai relationship sites or just Lonely Hearts columns.

There are two major variants of the fraud. In one form the advertiser is a genuine person but is only interested in 'gold-digging'. They are purely interested in a succession of lavish gifts and treats. Sometimes the Introduction Websites even act as agents for the provision of these! It is actually possible to meet the advertiser in their home country or a neutral location such as Prague. Some victims have been invited to visit Kiev or Moscow (after paying money to help 'facilitate' the visit of course). When there, the costs build. There are expensive dinners and theatre visits (at the victim's cost of course) often made worse by the fact that they MUST use an expensive designated 24 hour-available chauffeur/interpreter (the real boyfriend?) Sometimes the big request is made during the visit; sometimes many visits are made but at some point BIG money is requested. This may be to buy/rent a property at which the victim can meet them on future visits, the current apartment being totally unsuitable of course. At the very least the victim is supporting the lifestyle of someone with no intention of a continuing relationship. The demands continue until the victim runs out of money.

One reported case stated that the Kiev-based lady involved was known to be in active correspondence with 11 others and had a visitors schedule that "looked like a Eurostar Timetable ". Beware, gold-diggers are gold-diggers the world over but it is a lot easier if you can hide your real identity on the Internet.

The second is by far the worse scam and is operated by both individuals and teams of fraudsters. In this case the advertiser/lonely heart is completely fictitious. Often first attracted by photographs taken from a modelling website, the victim is sucked into an email conversation which becomes more personal as time goes on. Everything is normal for a while as the fraudster builds up confidence but things gradually change. (Sometimes though the approach is very crude with protestations of undying love and a request for money within the first three emails!)

At some point something 'happens' to make the conversation more difficult without a payment. Some of the reasons given include "cannot use/afford the Internet café any more ", "Friend who had been interpreting is moving and need to pay new interpreter ", "computer has broken and can't afford to buy a new one ", "new Internet rules mean that they have to pay more for access. " They can be very inventive and this will only increase with time.

Because the fraudster will have carefully built up the relationship, the victim will often offer to make small payments without being asked! If not, a gentle reminder will be made that the conversation may have to cease unless a little 'assistance' is forthcoming from the victim. If the victim pays, that's it! They're hooked! As the fraud progresses the amounts will increase ( "thrown out of apartment and need deposit for new one ", "had a motoring fine/car repair bill that means won't be in contact for a while because they are broke ", "mother needs an operation " etc.)

The key to this fraud (besides the current availability of complete anonymity on the Internet) is the emotional blackmail employed if the victim takes a step back ( "you don't have any feelings for me ", "I thought we had a real relationship here ", "you're heartless ", "do you want to see me on the street? " etc.)

Another variant often seen in the USA but prevalent in the UK also is the 'escape to the West' scam. Same build-up but the big demand is for costs incurred during a completely fictitious emigration to the victim's home country with a view to relationship/marriage. This involves payments (by Western Union) for American/British/Russian/Thai/Ukrainian visas/permits/documents etc. as well as the travel tickets of course. If the victim is completely taken-in, the coup-de-grace is a call from the airport because of some unforeseen problem that only money will solve to get them out of the country. They never get on the plane but the money has gone! Of course since there is no actual contact prior to the expected arrival in the victim's home country this is a scam that could be conducted using an entirely fictitious personality and identity.

This is far and away the most common scam and is often called the Visa and Travel Agent scam because at some point a quote is sent by a Travel Agency listing the travel costs and asking for payment. This is typically just under $1000 in Russia.
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