WASHINGTON - Alarmed by a rise in foreign-based Internet scams targeting the lovelorn and cash-hungry, including one that led to the suicide of an American in Africa last year, the State Department is warning U.S. citizens against falling prey to fraudsters.
Growing global access to e-mail and the Web has led to a surge in overseas confidence men and women using Internet dating services, chat rooms and phony Web sites to lure victims, many from the United States, it said.
“While such confidence schemes have long existed, the advent of the Internet has greatly increased their prevalence,” the department said in a 24-page brochure that described several electronic variations on age-old tricks to which Americans have recently succumbed.
“Individual Americans have lost considerable money on these scams, ranging from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” it said, adding that the number of scams and victims is exploding in the Internet age.
Titled “International Financial Scams - Internet Dating, Inheritance, Work Permits, Overpayment and Money Laundering,” the pamphlet says U.S. diplomatic missions abroad are deluged with complaints and questions from Americans about offers for money and companionship that look, and are, too good to be true.
In Nigeria, a country long known for innovative con artists, the U.S. consulate in Lagos gets thousands of such inquiries a year from ostensibly well-meaning but gullible dupes, and posts in Ghana, Britain and Russia also report significant numbers, it said.
From advance-fee schemes, also known as “419” scams after a section in Nigerian law, in which the victim is asked to front cash for a nonexistent lucrative payoff down the line, fraudsters have moved to offering false promises of love, sex and business success, it said.
“Advance-fee fraud scenarios are constantly evolving, and no longer originate just from Nigeria but from countries around the globe,” it said. “More recent scams have migrated from simple greed to the promise of love or a more rewarding professional life.”
Dubbed the “Gorgeous People in Trouble The Damsel in Distress,” “Long-Lost Inheritance Windfall from a Deceased Relative,” and “Job Offer You Can’t Refuse” scenarios, all have been used to drain bank balances and pride of victims in the United States, it said.
The brochure also provides examples of e-mail and instant message exchanges from victims and scammers, queries and pleas for help sent to U.S. diplomats as well as photos and phony identification cards used to convince the unsuspecting to part with their cash.
Warning signs of a scam include requests for any amount of money, often presented as appeals for help in increasingly dire personal circumstances, repeated cases of extreme bad luck, photographs that appear professionally posed and poor grammar, it said.
Although the pamphlet does not mention the suicide incident, its release follows a stern warning from security officials at the U.S. embassy in Lome, Togo, in West Africa, where an American took his life last July after losing his entire savings to an Internet scammer.
In an August report, the embassy said the unidentified victim, who lived in South Africa, lost nearly $1 million (euro760,000) to a Ghanian con man who contacted him through the Internet about a scheme to make huge profits by sending gold dust disguised as salt from Ghana to Dubai.
The victim, it said, mortgaged his home, sold his car and furniture and looted his investment firm to finance the scheme over a period of 18 months during which multiple promises were broken.
He also traveled to Dubai at the behest of the thief to set up a front company and pay shipping and cargo costs for the nonexistent gold dust as well as making numerous trips to Ghana, it said.
Destitute and unable to pay his hotel bill in Lome after being stranded by the scammer, the victim wrote “a rambling and angry letter” to his tormenter, a man he knew as “Ruffs,” accusing him of backing out of their deal.
“On the morning of July 19, he packed his clothes,” the report said. “On top, he placed his US passport and a thick envelope addressed to his brother. Then, he fashioned a noose out of bed sheets and hung himself in the closet.”
“American embassies throughout the region have become very familiar with these scams and the victims’ apparent need to throw good money after bad in order to avoid admitting to themselves that they had been had. However, this is the first we know of that involves such a tragic end.”