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.
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."
He can equally paint a picture of the victims. “When it comes to romance scams, the vast majority of victims are women. Many are separated or widowed and in their late 50s or their 60s. They might have family but may be living alone. They have maybe had some wine in the evening so their inhibitions are down. They are not, however, what I would describe as vulnerable. They are naive, for sure, but they tend to be very well-educated professionals and would hate to be described as vulnerable.”
Men are also targeted but the scam tends to take a different trajectory, he says. “More than 70 per cent of those caught up in romance scams are women. What happens with men is different. Not long after contact is made a man might get a video from the woman he believes he is communicating with and in it she is performing a sex act so he sends something similar back and then it quickly becomes a case of blackmail.”
It is hard to overstate how serious the business of scams is in Ireland. In the first half of 2021 criminals conned Irish people out of more than €15 million, with fraudulent activity jumping by almost 80 per cent as criminals sought to maximise their profits from the fear and uncertainty caused by Covid-19.
Victims were tricked out of an average of €5,300 in scams involving impersonation, romance and bogus investments.
Late last year the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI) issued a report which detailed the scale of the problem. More than two-thirds of Irish people were targeted by some form of impersonation scam in 12 months. Thousands of people fell victim to scams last year and many thousands more will fall victim this year. Based on the BPFI figures, as many as 60 people will have money stolen by scam artists by next Friday.
The banks are on the front line in the fight against scams and while critics say they could be doing more to protect people and their money, they are taking measures. Three years ago AIB set up a vulnerable customer programme based in the west and headed up by Ciara Drain, although she is the first to admit the bank has been dealing with vulnerable customers since it first opened its doors. However, the nature of the vulnerabilities have changed and grown more sinister in recent years.
As many as 5,000 customers are identified as being particularly vulnerable by the bank each year, with one in four referred to the dedicated unit for specialist engagement. It handles cases involving intellectual disability, dementia, financial abuse, bereavement, relationship breakdown and scams.
When The Irish Times makes a virtual visit to the team, its members highlight just some of the cases that have crossed their desk in recent times, making sure they have changed key details to protect the anonymity of those involved.
In one case a bank branch where one man in his 80s had banked for decades noticed unusual activity on his account. "Suddenly things started to change and they didn't look right," says Noreen Cleary.
Staff at the branch rang the man who, it quickly emerged, was now in a nursing home. He had given his card to his grandson to buy a few bits and pieces but the grandson had started helping himself to a few bits and pieces of his own.
“He was giving control over to the grandson and he wasn’t taking any note of what was going on so was unaware that while the grandson was getting the sundry items for him, he was also, unfortunately, helping himself to a lot of what was in the bank account,” she says. With the man’s agreement the card was cancelled and an alternative way for him to manage his finances was found.
In another case AIB’s credit card services flagged unusual activity on an older man’s credit card and contacted the vulnerable customers unit. “The card went from being used very rarely to suddenly being very active at very unusual times,” she says.
When the bank contacted the card holder “he had no idea what was going on in his account, because unfortunately, he had a trusted third party staying in his house, who had obtained his credit card and PIN without his knowledge [and] was using the card without his consent”, Cleary says. “This would have been quite traumatic for the customer if you think that someone you trust, who is living in your house, is taking your card.”
The card was stopped and the person using the card inappropriately could do nothing about it because if they contacted the bank to complain, the bank could quite legitimately say they could only talk to the account holder.
When it comes to scam, team member Sharon Daly has "definitely seen an increase in online fraud. We had one customer who invested €40,000 with a site which turned out to be fake".
'They are trawling the internet looking for people who are alone or who have just lost loved ones and they are fair game'
The customer called the bank in a very distressed state. “He said in addition to stealing his money the scammers had also threatened to release his personal information. The unit helped him clear his phone, cut off the investment avenues and closed all his existing accounts and opened new ones,” she says.
Sometimes the investment scams mingle with romance scams. “We’ve seen a massive increase in the last year in romance scams,” says Cleary.
The AIB unit comes across romance scams “probably at least once a week”, Drain adds.
"Normally the way they seem to worm their way in is a friend request on Facebook or whatever social media it might be," Cleary continues. "But the scammers have done their homework prior to this friend request, so the chances are – and this is horrible – that they will troll RIP.ie and will check the property register to see who's recently sold a house there or check newspapers for people who are recently retired or sold a lot of shares and then they pick them online. They know the people that they target, they generally know that there's cash to be had and the thing is, once they're in there, they can be in there for the long haul.
“So you might have somebody who’s had a relationship, what they believe to be a genuine relationship online, for a year, or for 18 months. And then suddenly, out of the blue, it’s ‘Oh, God, you know, my child has just been in an accident, and they’re in need of urgent care’, or it’s, ‘we’re going to come and visit you. But we can’t, we can’t get the money together. If you send it over to me’, and this is it, they just drip feed this.”
Daly highlights one customer they dealt with who was “befriended on social media after the death of his wife. It started on social media and progressed to text messages and calls. The customer believed they were going to marry this person”.
'The romance scams are huge, they try and find a lonely woman, and get her to fall in love with a handsome profile picture of a guy'
The new love of his life convinced the victim she was “really experienced in investing funds and convinced our customer to transfer a significant amount of money abroad. Despite numerous attempts by the branch to convince him otherwise, he wanted to continue to transfer money”.
The unit convinced him to speak to a solicitor and “asked the community garda to go out and have a chat. And it was only at this point through the engagement with the solicitor and the community garda that he acknowledged it was unfortunately a romance scam”.
She says a big challenge “is just convincing the customer where we suspect that it is a romance scam. The person might be really lonely with limited social interaction. Scammers rely on this to extract cash. And some customers might even be willing to continue making these transfers to try and maintain the relationship”.
According to Cleary the unit is “not seeing one type of victim. They can be male, female, any age profession, the person might be recently bereaved or have just sold a property or business or received an inheritance”.
Paul C Dwyer is the chief executive of Dublin-based Cyber Risk International and is an expert on cybersecurity, risk and privacy and he spends much of his time immersed in the murky world of internet crime.
“Some of the stuff is just so nasty,” he says. “They are trawling the internet looking for people who are alone or who have just lost loved ones and they are fair game. I work a lot over in Nigeria, and I have been in warehouses full of people whose job is to scam western white women with fake profiles. They will take weeks or months to groom them and they use all the same kinds of psychological techniques, that predators of all kinds of use.”
The criminals stop at nothing to reach their marks, Dwyer continues. He notes that websites such as RIP.ie are “a really easy place for them to pick up information that they can use for different kinds of scams”.
“But the romance scams are huge, they try and find a lonely woman, and get her to fall in love with a handsome profile picture of a guy. It’s not like there is one bad actor with one victim. These guys might have 40 or 50 women on the go and they keep all the plates spinning so it becomes extremely lucrative. They have their cubicle. That’s their job and they go in every day and will keep files and techniques as they work away to get somebody. What they’re selling is love and hope. And you have these lonely people buying it because they’re falling for the dream.”
According to Dwyer the scam works so well “because people believe what they want to believe and when somebody is lonely and vulnerable and maybe isolated, they really are prey”.
He breaks those targeted loosely into two groups. The “lonely, horny businessman travelling, wanting to get up to something while he is away and then there’s somebody who wants a relationship”.
He says those behind the scams are not “stupid people and they’re making a lot of money at it. If it was just somebody sending you a spam email, and trying to get you to follow a link by saying ‘I love you handsome devil, click here’ then they’re not going to be very successful so they groom their victims instead”.
He describes it bluntly as “cyber evil”.
“These people have no conscience. They don’t care if they’re using the identity of a dead baby or whether they’re going after someone whose heart is broken and just wants to engage and connect with another human being. They don’t care. Their motivation is money. They don’t care who they hurt or what they do to carry out that game. They are so desensitised because they hide behind the keyboard. There’s no humanity in this and they don’t care that your heart is broken. They’re just looking for the hook.”
*This article was amended on January 29th, 2022