A friend of mine has been the victim of a lonely hearts-style fraud, giving thousands of dollars he cannot afford to a group of men in Africa posing as a woman in love with him.
I finally had to intervene last week and I do not even know how effective this is going to be.
But first, let me set the stage. Much of the material in the story originally appeared in the Niagara Falls Reporter.
Ronald Robinson [not his real name] is 79.
When he was 72, he admitted to me that he wired $5,500 to Nancy, a woman he met in an online chat room. I found out this week that over the years, it turned out it was much more. He admitted that he had sent $50,000 total to Nancy.
Before you laugh at him or call him crazy, consider his story.
A few years back, my associate, the late Mike Hudson helped me expose the scam in the Niagara Falls Reporter so that others might not be fooled. Sadly, not only are others still being fooled, but Ronnie continued to pump money to his Nancy – and her lawyer and other friends who said they were trying to get Nancy to America where she could be with him.
He had promised me he would stop sending her money years ago.
It began with a few small moneygram transders. The first one, a mere $75 to help her out with groceries.
Small initial loans to help her pay utility bills quickly turned into large amounts meant to cover the cost of her travel to America and for clearing up some paperwork problems that prevented her from leaving the West African nation of Ghana.
Pages and pages of text messages sent back and forth between Robinson and the women he knew as Nancy, reveal a lonely man living with his elderly mother, a man whose desire for feminine companionship was so great he was ready to believe anything.
According to the U.S. State Dept., thousands of Americans fall victim every year to foreign-based online scams such as the one that conned Robinson. Africa is a hotbed of such activity, and the problem is so acute in Ghana that the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana has issued an alert concerning it.
The anonymity of the Internet means that the U.S. citizen cannot be sure of the real name, age, marital status, nationality, or even gender of the correspondent.
In the majority of cases reported to the embassy, the correspondent turned out to be a fictitious persona created only to lure the U.S. citizen into sending money.
Many Americans have reported losing thousands of dollars through these scams, and because the scammers work from internet cafes, they are very elusive, and recovering money sent is virtually impossible.
“United States citizens should be alert to attempts at fraud by persons claiming to live in Ghana who profess friendship or romantic interest over the Internet,” the warning begins. “Correspondents who quickly move to discussion of intimate matters could well be the inventions of scammers. If they are after your money, eventually they will ask for it.
“Before you send any money to Ghana, please take the time to be very well informed. Start by considering the fact that scams are common enough to warrant this warning. Next, look over this partial list of indicators. If any of them sound familiar, you are likely the victim of an internet scam.”
Warning signs include having met the love interest on the internet rather than face to face, talk of love coming at warp speed, the prospective lover’s consistent use of lower case “I’s” and other grammatical errors, the need for loans and, finally, an inability to get out of Ghana even after the victim has sent large sums of money for visas and airline tickets, the embassy reports.
“Cases bearing these and other hallmarks have all proven to be scams intended to separate sympathetic people from their money,” the embassy advises. “In the event you do lose money, be warned that your chances of getting it back are almost nil. This type of crime is not a priority for local police, even if they had the resources to tackle it. The Embassy can offer a sympathetic ear but, often, little else.”
The woman, who called herself Nancy, had a sad story to tell. When Robinson pressed her for details, she reverted to the same story time and time again.
“You have to understand,” Robinson wrote, “Mom asks me about you and I don’t know anything. So you need to start to tell me all about Nancy. You never told me only you lived in South Africa and then your parents went to store and died. So start to tell me about you please, so I can tell her.”
Nancy replied, “As i told you that we was from South Africa and we decided to go and pay a visit to my Grandma in Ghana and unfortunately i lost all my parents (in an auto crash) when they decide to go and buy some items in Royal Mart. And later i was living with my Grandmum and she also died later with ulcer.”
The lower case “I’s” mentioned in the embassy warning might have alerted Robinson. But he was unaware of the situation in Ghana.
The events Nancy described had occurred, Nancy said, 10 years earlier when she was 19. Now she made a little money selling ice water by the side of the road, she said, often driven to the brink of despair by poverty.
“Darling, I am honest, calm, good, respectful and obedient. I am orphan girl who don’t want any problem in my life so my love I will take you and mom as my everything when I am with there with you,” she wrote.
“I was a student and I was trying to be a nurse in the near future when we came to ghana. I made up my mind to further my education so life is unfair to me and I cannot do what I was trying to do in life. Darling you just ask me any question you want and i will answer you. I am sorry,” she added.
She had a laptop and knew how to use Skype, but said she didn’t have a microphone that would allow them to actually converse. Their two-month online romance is thus preserved in a series of often terse private messages.
“Can I ask why you love me?” Robinson wrote.
“As i told you already that i was looking for an honest man who can love me and care about me and i will also live with him,” Nancy replied. “And you said that i have got a right man. Because you are handsome and you also care about me and i wish to be with you soon because when i set my eyes on you my heart burn like flames it all means that my heart beat for you.”
“I just want to know in my heart that this will all happen,” he said, hopefully.
“When i see you my heart become happy.”
“Ok. I want to make love to you soon,” he wrote.
But such wistful professions of love inevitably gave way to pleas for money and threats about what might happen if Robinson didn’t send the cash.
But the couple became so close that Nancy had her own seat at the dinner table, with Robinson and his 93-year-old mother dining as Nancy watched her future family from the computer screen. [It was actually, as I discovered later, a simple video of Nancy, which played in a continuous loop.]
About three weeks into the online romance, problems developed for Nancy and she asked Robinson to wire her a loan of $75. Considering that the per capita income in Ghana is just $724 a year, the $75 represented a considerable chunk of change.
The next day, he and Nancy resumed their messaging, and she thanked him for the help. She then told Robinson that she found a way that they could be together, and she found someone who could help her come to the United States.
She told Robinson about a man named Frank, a South African attorney who would arrange for her return for a small fee. She begged Robinson to help, as she truly wanted to be with him and make him happy.
Nancy explained that the attorney would fly her to Niagara Falls, and take care of all the paperwork involved, if Robinson paid the $5,500 fee. Again he hesitated, as he was not a rich man, and he simply didn’t have the money.
“Don’t have money now but trying to raise it…” he wrote. “I need a complete breakdown of all cost, not a package price. I’ve been asking everybody, but my close friends said build a website and friends to help you bring her to you. We are really connect by social media and all my friends would help, each one contributing a bit to help. When we have enough money raised it will be easy.”
The process would take too long, Nancy complained.
“Life is unfair to me and i have to leave this unfair world,” she wrote. “You and mom are my everything so when you did not help me to be with you soon i will commit suicide.”
Robinson began to panic. Had he finally found the love of his life, only to lose her to suicide because he couldn’t put together a few dollars?
“I’m working to get you here,” he wrote.
“That’s good, But Ronny I am hungry. Try and send me $200 to pay my bills. Today. So that I will get gas to cook food. Only $200 today to pay my bills. I beg you. Please. Try for me,” she replied.
“When did you eat last?”
“Nothing. Because I don’t have any money to pay my bills.”
Robinson sent the $200, and finally he sent the $5,500 to Frank, the lawyer Nancy said would take care of her travel arrangements. Once he emailed the Moneygram reference number that would allow the money to be released in Ghana he was on Cloud Nine.
His Nancy would be here later that day.
One more text message followed. She needed another $1,200 because they wouldn’t let her out of the country without some spending money in her pocket. And she wanted to buy a new dress for the trip.
It was at that time that Robinson contacted me. After viewing the text messages, a call was placed to the “lawyer Frank,” who repeated the request for additional funds.
Finally, Robinson realized he’d been duped. [at least temporarily.]
Did Nancy really exist? Who can know? She certainly was not the woman whose pictures were sent to Robinson.
For all anyone knows, the reams of text messages might have been typed by some burly African footballer who perhaps also posed as the mysterious “lawyer.”
It was a textbook scam, one that thousands of Americans fall victim to each year. There is nothing Robinson can do, he has no hope of getting his money back or of seeing “Nancy” and “Frank” being brought to justice.
His is a cautionary tale, one that should serve as a warning for lonely people with computer access everywhere. Sending money by wire is like handing cash to a stranger.
In my next post in this series, I will describe my first intervention to try to prevent Ronnie from sending more money to Nancy.