Concordia fine arts student Chuck Cameron* flips through a black leather album full of photographs mailed to the online dating company where he works. The photographs are profile shots of members who need help uploading them to a computer. Cameron stops on a Polaroid of a middle-aged man with a dragon shirt and a twisted moustache.
“That guy is awesome. Who sends a shot of the back of their shirt? It’s slightly illegal for me to show you these,” he says about the album. “But I love this thing!”
The unauthorized collection of photographs is a testament to how much Cameron enjoys his customer service job at a dating service website, whose fifth floor office on Montreal’s Main is furnished with sleek frosted glass windows, exposed brick and enough soft drinks to hydrate a small army. When I visit on a Saturday evening Cameron is trying to convince the guy with the dragon shirt not to send $1,800 to a woman in Ghana. Cameron is certain the woman’s profile, which features seven studio quality shots of a striking short-haired 20-something blond, is fraudulent.
According to Cameron, Ghana is where most of the fraud on his employer’s site originates. He says the profile is used for the prototypical “romance scam,” a confidence trick in which the target is persuaded to send money for a visa, plane ticket and other such scripted stories.
“I tried to explain to the guy that I check for fake profiles all day. It’s my job. But he just didn’t want to listen. It’s sad because I’m sure in his city there’s half a dozen girls who might be into him, but he just wants this one girl.”
The scamming network
The romance scam, a subset of the advance-fee fraud, was pioneered in Nigeria, Ghana’s neighbour in the Gulf of Guinea. The scam requires the investor to pay a fee up front, or in advance of receiving any proceeds. Also known as 419 crime, the number referring to its article in the Nigerian Criminal Code, advance-fee fraud has become a Nigerian national pastime.
It started in the 1970s when hundreds of letters were sent to small businesses in the United States and Europe. They claimed to be official figures in the Nigerian government asking for help with the disposal of new oil money.
By 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice had a court order to open every piece of mail from Nigeria passing through JFK airport in New York. Around 70 per cent of these letters contained scam offers. An explosion of Nigerian email scams flooded the Internet in the 2000s and other countries created similar scams causing many countries to create cyber crime units, but scammers adapted. Today they engage in check laundering, credit card fraud, identity theft, Moneygram interceptions and Western Union hijacking. Organized scam rings buy out entire Internet cafÃ©s. Some employ women and young men to fabricate online dating profiles and scour sites for potential targets.
Leonard Lawal reported for Fortune Magazine in 2006 that teenagers in Lagos, Nigeria could make it big doing 10 hour days, seven days a week working scams in Internet cafÃ©s, earning the nickname “cafÃ© boys.” Lawal, a senior analyst for Advisory Services Africa Limited in the Gulf of Guinea tells me that since the Fortune Magazine article, things have changed. For one, the “cafÃ© boys” are not around much anymore. And, despite increased awareness, hundreds of prosecutions and a reported $11 billion in recovered funds by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), 419 crime remains.
The majority of Cameron’s workday is spent fishing for bogus babes. Cracking down on scammers is his favourite part of the job but Cameron and his department are an exception in the business of online dating. Some sites encourage their members to report suspicious profiles, but most lack a customer service hotline and depend entirely on filtering software to weed out the phonies.
When Cameron stumbles upon a pattern of scamming he writes up a report for his boss, which gets passed along to the programmers who use it to develop their filtering software. The information does not get reported to an official agency. The only legal recourse for Chuck and his coworkers is to delete the profile. Even when they get a call from a customer who has sent $20,000 to a person they think is fake, a situation which occurs about once a month, they merely advise them not to send any more money and investigate the profile.
Every now and then Cameron hears about a legal case that is being put together on a scammer but this is difficult because no country treats attempted fraud as a prosecutable crime, it only counts when a financial loss has been incurred. There is no official central agency documenting 419 crime, but there is a company in the Netherlands called Ultrascan Advanced Global Investigations. Their reputation is disputed on the Internet but Lawal assures me that their CEO Frank Engelsman is the authority on 419 crime.
In 2010, Ultrascan, a corporation that specializes in biometric identity management and high-accuracy fingerprint identification, released a statistics report that stated $9.3 billion was lost worldwide to 419 crime in 2009 alone. It also found that the rise of non-Latin script and characters on the web is making it easier for scammers to evade filtering software.
The report claims that in Canada scammers maintain a high level of professionalism, often owning money wiring agencies and using them as scamming hubs. Engelsman says that romance scams make up about 25 per cent of 419 crime worldwide, with an average loss of $5,000 per victim.
In 1993 Barry Elliott, a member of the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch, founded what would become the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. Originally created to address telemarketing fraud, the North Bay centre now has 11 full-time call takers who can handle up to 300 calls daily.
RCMP officer Kent Read is the head of statistics at the CAFC. His numbers indicate that the romance scam was the twelfth most reported fraud in Canada last year with $6.2 million in losses, almost double the 2009 total. But the CAFC’s website does not include the romance scam on their “list of scams.” Read admits it is one of a few schemes that should be added.
Louis Robertson is another RCMP officer working at the CAFC. He says his unit has investigated mass marketing scam rings across Canada, working with six provincial partners. Their efforts focus on the organized crime rings behind the scams. Robertson has also worked with Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization and assisted in international investigations based out of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Cameron has never heard of the CAFC. Rather, when he gets a call from a scam victim through work, he refers them to a website called Romancescams.org. Founded in 2005 by Barbara Sluppick of Branson, Mo., the site has 17,000 active members and 13 volunteer moderators. It offers support for victims and resources for scam prevention. The group does multiple poster campaigns each year, hands out free bumper stickers and speaks with anyone in the media that will listen. Sluppick has even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
On one day of the week, 5,000 profiles alone were created on the dating site Cameron works for. He says the website deletes 300 to 400 scammers a day and he catches about 30 to 40 of them.
Once a profile is deleted, the user has a week before they lose complete access to the website. During that period they can only see and communicate with other rejected profiles. He often wonders what transpires between two romance scams that find each other on the Internet.
Cameron takes pride in his work and when he is on a call he listens intently. Cameron speaks with a slow, deliberate pace and his methodical approach to life is a perfect match for customer service. It also makes him a fitting soldier in the global war against fraud.
“I spend a lot of time online and I feel like at this job I’m leaving my mark on the Internet. And in a small way, I’m making it a better place for the lonely-hearted.”
*By request, the name has been changed to protect the subjects identity.