Online scammers use sophisticated manipulation and well-rehearsed scripts to con people out of cash
Carla was scrolling through Instagram one day during lockdown when a good-looking man named Luke came up as a suggested person to follow.
Out of curiosity, she clicked on his profile and he promptly gave her permission. Luke messaged her almost immediately and their friendship began and quickly blossomed.
“The first thing I noticed was how attractive he was. His photos were all very normal and realistic, I didn’t have any suspicions. Him at home, with his cat, showing his tattoos. He told me he was born in Poland but had been adopted as a baby in the UK and lived in Glasgow. He told me he was an engineer,” says Carla (not her real name), a Polish woman in her early 30s who lives in Dublin. “We immediately had in common that we were both from Poland. He was very charming, he said he wanted to find a girlfriend, preferably Polish, and eventually relocate to Poland and start a family.”
Their communication soon moved off Instagram after he suggested they chat on Hangouts, a free messaging app. “We would be messaging all day, every day. It was like a real relationship and went on for a few months. I had only recently come out of a long-term relationship and he was actually the first man I opened up to again.”
Luke spoke about wanting to come to visit Carla in Dublin and invited her to visit him in Glasgow. But because of Covid and lockdowns, neither could travel. Instead, they maintained daily contact until one day Luke did something that caused Carla to stop and take stock. He asked her for money.
“He told me he had a problem at work, he had lost money for his company and he had to pay it back. I said could he not ask family or friends or get a loan. He said, ‘I was hoping you could help me’. I said no, that I had never met him, I could not just give him money. In that moment, I knew that something was wrong. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, just forget it’.”
But Carla could not forget it. She told one of her friends, who decided to run some of Luke’s photos through Google Lens, a photo app. Carla’s suspicions were confirmed. The man she thought was Luke was actually a Danish model and this fraudster had stolen his photos from the internet.
“I was disappointed, it was a shock. This was the first man I had really talked to since the end of my long-term relationship and I was in therapy to deal with all of that, which I had told him all about too, and he was so kind about it. I stopped talking to him straight away when I found out.”
Carla decided it was a matter for the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB). After hearing her story, detectives told here she was the victim of an attempted romance fraud. They asked her to get back in touch with Luke and, acting on their instructions, she asked him a series of questions in order to extract his bank account details so investigators could try to put him out of operation.
“So I started to talk to him again. I told him that I knew the truth, that he wasn’t who he said he was. He admitted he was from Africa and said he was very poor, without even enough money for food. I said I would still help him if he gave me bank account details. I got two bank account details from him that I passed on to the garda. I then blocked him. I also reported him to Instagram.”
What happened to Carla is not rare. The men — and women — behind romance fraud scams use sophisticated manipulation and well-rehearsed scripts to convince people to part with their money, according to Detective Inspector Mel Smyth of the GNECB.
“Luckily for this woman, she didn’t hand over any money and instead came to gardaí. But there are a lot of men and women in this country who have parted with tens of thousands of euro and even more before they realise they are being scammed,” said Det Insp Smyth, who works in the area of serious economic crime and anti-corruption, among other things.
The GNECB sent the bank accounts supplied by the fraudster to Interpol. They got in touch with law enforcement in the European and African countries where the accounts were opened, in order to initiate the closure of the accounts and fraud investigations.
“This woman had a lucky escape, many others do not,” Det Insp Smyth said. These fraudsters use social engineering on social media to manipulate people. They often look at the information you put on social media and then create their own profile so that it appears you have a lot of common interests with them.
“People should remember that what you put on social media needs to be restricted to protect yourself. They can spend months cultivating a relationship with someone online before they come out with a sob story and ask for money. Everyone should stop and ask themselves this. If you met someone on the street and they asked you for €10,000, you would say no? So why would you hand it over to someone online?”