Online romance scams in Africa

June 28, 2016

Since the turn of this century, online romance has become commonplace but that has come at a cost.Dating scams continue to lure many people in search of love with average individual losing three times higher than other types of fraud according to very reliable data in my possession.The researcher behind the study set up in June 2015 to help target those it believes have been caught in such scams in five African countries of Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and Egypt. Over six months it sent 5,000 letters to potential victims in those countries with each country getting 1,000 letters.The figures show that an average 90 people have been scammed, losing a total USD $987,000 that’s an average of USD$196.60 per victim. Almost three quarters of the scams were dating and romance related, which saw it evolve into the number one category of fraud victimisation.Romance scams continue to pose a problem despite the efforts of the law enforcement agencies but what baffles me is, why is it that people continue to fall for them? From personal experience of talking to victims, it starts out innocently. An online message from a dating website. After that initial connection, it moves to an off-site messenger service. One victim told me few years ago that she found herself in long conversations, day and night, over email, messenger. It took her days to develop a relationship while another one took weeks, others months or the experienced ones take years to build relationships. But then it happens, the request for money. It may be a few hundred dollars or it may be several thousand.

The request can be for a hospital emergency, a burial request or any number of things. By that stage, the level of trust and rapport is so strong and the level of perceived intimacy so great, that the victim complies and sends money. For so many, that first transfer is the beginning of a heartbreaking and costly journey.Whatever the story, once the victim pays a scammer the money is gone and the chance of ever recovering the loss is almost nil. To prevent such losses the best way is to seek out potential victims and attempt to stop them sending money via mobile money to their scammers.In Kenya, M-Pesa mobile platform is the medium in which Kenyans are scammed to send money to fraudsters.This follows similar approaches undertaken in other jurisdictions which exemplifies a proactive way to combat this type of fraud.As an outsider, it is difficult to understand how a person becomes a victim. It seems somewhat outrageous that a person could send large amounts of money to a person they have not met in person or even a person whose online profile doesn’t exist. It’s too easy to blame the victim, hold them responsible for their loss and reinforce the shame and guilt they are already feeling. But this ignores the role of the offenders in this situation and the ways in which they employ high level manipulation, exploitation and social engineering tactics to ensure compliance from their victims.Everyone has a weakness or vulnerability.

Being human implies that we are all fallible. For those seeking relationships online, their weakness is the desire to find love.Research which explore characteristics of online relationships have found increased self disclosures online compared to face to face interactions. Combined with research which asserts online communication as the enabler of overly intense relationships, this literature helps frame how individuals are manipulated into losing money to someone they have not physically met.Over the years, I’ve met victims and they do not fit a prescribed stereotype. The idea that victims are greedy and stupid is simply a myth used to perpetuate the idea that “smart people” cannot be victims, that they are different to those who become victims and that they are too smart and impenetrable to any type of fraud. Instead, several studies I have come across shows that romance fraud in Africa affects men and women, young and old though older people are more attractive targets, from a variety of educational, occupational and socio-economic backgrounds. I’ve also established that people cope differently from this experience, some are angry, some are depressed, some talk of suicide, while others spend every waking hour trying to figure out how they were scammed and try to prevent it happening to others. There are still many victims who are not able to come to terms with what is happening and despite intervention from family, friends and even law enforcement, they refuse to acknowledge the deception.

Print and electronic media outlets in Africa are littered with other stories of men and women who have suffered at the hands of online crooks, and are fully aware of what happened. These people have not only had to deal with the financial impact of the fraud but also grieve the loss of the relationship which formed the central part of the ruse. Then there are those who have shouldered the burden in silence, fearful of the reaction they would get from family, friends and law enforcement agencies. For the brave victims who do come forward and disclose, in many instances there situation is dismissed by their family and friends, they are further stigmatised in these circles and unable to get any acknowledgement about what happened from law enforcement and other agencies. This only further traumatises the victim and reinforces their existing notions of self-blame. In terms of prevention, it is difficult to promote a message which encompasses the complexity of online romance fraud. Prevention needs to come in the form of acknowledgement, of recognising the fact that no one is immune to fraud when using online romance to find relationships. Instead, it should be a simplistic message that focuses on protection of money across all circumstances whether online or offline.

Contador Harrison