Emmanuel Nwude sold an imaginary airport to a Brazilian bank for $242 million. Another scammer, Rubbin Sarpong, sweet-talked a woman out of $93,000. The woman believed Sarpong was a soldier in Syria who was in love with her. She believed she was helping the military and helping her romantic partner to bring gold bars back to the U.S. The gold bars, she was promised, would repay her for her investment. She waited at the airport for the arrival of a man who would be bringing some of these gold bars to her. She had a photo of him sent to her by Sarpong. Unfortunately, this was a photo of an Israeli diplomat which Sarpong randomly selected. When the man never showed up and she began to realize she had been a victim of a scam, she took her own life.
Sarpong Selfie of His Ill-gotten Gains
Now, it’s easy to dismiss these victims as being naïve and not fully taking into account the classic warning signs, such as receiving requests for money from someone they have never actually met. However, being naïve, lonely, greedy or optimistic are not, in and of themselves, crimes. They are weaknesses that scammers routinely exploit. How many crimes can be traced back to a bad decision by the victim? Probably most of them. But, unlike traditional crimes, these cyber crimes aren’t as easy to trace and the perpetrators are often never found. Even when they are found, they often receive minimal punishments. In many cases, they are found to be living in other countries, often African countries, where they cannot be brought to justice. Sarpong, for example, was born in Ghana and became an American permanent resident. He maintained connections to criminal gangs in Ghana and routinely sent them money. He faces up to 20 years in prison but it’s unlikely any of his Ghanaian cohorts will be punished.
That’s why the latest announcement from the Department of Justice of the arrest of 281 scammers from all over the world came as such a surprise. Besides the arrest of 74 Americans, they arrested scammers in Nigeria, Turkey, Ghana, and a host of other countries. The operation, Operation reWired, was primarily interested in stopping the growth of Business Email Compromise (BEC) scams which have cost companies $1.3 billion worldwide. These criminals also stole sensitive corporate information and the personal information of numerous employees. The number of such scams have been increasing rapidly, and they have become more and more sophisticated. Although these arrests may not end these scams completely, they will certainly cause a sharp decrease in them. The Nigerian Prince is not dead but he is stunned. The arrests will also send a message to scammers that they may not be as safe as they thought they were.
BEC scams often begin as an email that appears to be from someone high up in a company. The scammer’s goal is to make someone in the company transfer money to them. The report also points out that these criminals are now using a cocktail of scams to get their cash, often combining, for example, BEC and romance scams. It seems quite likely that people caught up in a romance scam would be more easily converted into money mules. They would be more easily coerced into transferring stolen money into their ‘lover’s’ account. In other cases, the compromised victim may be convinced to open a number of bank accounts for the scammers… all in the name of love. In the end, not only will they have to deal with the fact that they were fooled by someone they loved, but they may also be indicted for money laundering.
I see no reason why romance scams could not be used for even more nefarious purposes involving nation-states. It is just a matter of time before adversarial countries use romance scams to gain the confidence of someone inside the company, agency, or organization they want to infiltrate. Such a compromised insider, with access to valuable information, is the biggest threat to any enterprise. This could become an even more serious problem when Facebook establishes its new dating service.
Facebook is involved in romance scams already. It’s used as often as dating sites for scammers to find victims. In addition, fake Facebook profiles are often set up by scammers to validate their legitimacy in the eyes of the men and women they scam. Sarpong used dating sites and ‘proved’ his legitimacy by showing a fake or stolen military Common Access Card like the one shown below. (I put this here so that potential victims will know not to accept such documents as proof.)
Sarpong emailed and used VOIP services to make calls to his 30 victims. Often, scammers will avoid speaking to a victim because their accents and poor English would give them away, especially if they are posing as a native English speaker in the military. This is why potential victims are often warned about romantic partners met through dating or other internet sites who keep avoiding phone or video contact. Here, Sarpong had an advantage. The fact that he was willing to speak to his victims may have put them at ease.
It is encouraging to see African nations, such as Nigeria, working with U.S. law enforcement. In the past, African governments never took these scams or scammers seriously. Few were arrested unless they went too far. In fact, many young people in these countries look up to scammers and, in countries where it is difficult to get a well-paying job, may even entertain scamming as a career path. There are, in fact, schools that train scammers. So, it is unlikely that these arrests will put an end to these scams any time soon.
On the other hand, Nigeria is trying to enter the international community and the stereotype of them as thieves and scammers may make those in other countries reluctant to do business with them. Legitimate businesses trying to make international contacts may be shunned. It is time for entrepreneurs in Nigeria and other countries to put pressure on their governments to crack down on these scammers. Such pressure combined with these recent arrests may be the first step towards clearing up Nigeria’s international image.