The romance scam is the worst kind of scam. It has robbed countless eager men and women of their money and pride and hope for true love. It has been doing this for longer than anyone really knows, and certainly before the web was born, presumably even before the invention of writing.
But one of the first documented instances of what we know today as the "romance scam" occurred in the 1980s, when strange ads started popping up in newspapers in the United States and Canada, often featuring men seeking other men. The ads were fake, all part of an elaborate scam being run by prisoners from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It is known as the “Angola Lonely Hearts Club,” and was explained by Dean Shapiro in Biloxi Confidential:
The scam worked roughly like this: ads would be placed in the “personals” sections of widely read newspapers, purportedly by individuals seeking companionship — most often men seeking other men. When responses came in, letters would be sent to the respondents requesting money. The letters would usually include a photo of an attractive man which the letter claimed to be of the sender, and the presence of the photo seemed to entice the respondent to establish a correspondence. The letter would paint a sympathetic portrait of the purported sender and cite some pressing need to get money so the two of them could get together. Money would be sent to the senders, the operators of the scam, later to be couriered outside of the prison and deposited in various banks.
A BBC report on romance scams.
Today these kind of scams originate with increased frequency from places like West Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. It’s often a variation of the 419 scam, a type of advance fee fraud mostly associated with Nigeria, where “419” refers to the criminal code for obtaining property under false pretenses. Unlike many of the other 419 scams, a romance scam preys upon lonely and desperate individuals on the Internet, tugging at their heart strings with sexy photos and promises of eternal love. The monetary fallout is huge; the emotional pain can be incurable.
Testimonial of a woman duped by an “American” man “doing construction” in Nigeria
Now 419 targets are increasingly found in non-Western countries, like China and India. And the economic costs are growing: a 2009 study that analyzed 8,503 cases across 152 countries found that victims lost $9.3 billion that year, compared to $6.3 billion in 2008. The 225-page report report also estimated the number of scammers out there: 250,000 people in Nigeria committed internet fraud, while a minimum of 51,761 people perpetrated their crimes from 69 other countries.
In Ghana, as Thomas Morton discovered when he visited Accra in a Motherboard video from 2010, scammers don’t just depend on psychological tricks to nab victims: they seek out the good blessings of juju priests. The practice, known as “Sakawa,” has inspired local youth fashion and music, and led to a series of bizarre films glamorizing the criminal-spiritual lifestyle of email scammers.
In order to thwart scammers, some dating sites like Reelspark use a verification system in an attempt to weed out fakes, while Romancescams.org posts horror stories and tips for prevention. The best defense is obvious, people: don’t give anyone cash until you’ve developed a relationship with them in person – or don’t give them cash at all. If you’ve been the victim of a scam, you could file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center – or, perhaps more appropriate, seek a kind of unethical revenge at scammer baiting sites like 419eater.
Money isn’t always the motive for the romance scam. A new Internet phenomenon called the Forever Alone flashmob threatens to embarrass romance-seeking men online in a forced flash mob in New York City next month. And the possibly-partly-pseudo documentary Catfish illustrated the potential for lonelyhearts to manufacture a virtual identity in pursuit of an emotional connection. Which, come to think of it, could just be the basis of every online romance, scam or not.