'Nigerian' scammers targeting internet dating sites

Lawton_Two sorts of internet identity fraud are teaming up to make victims of unsuspecting e-mail recipients.  Most folks have received a few advance-fee fraud e-mails - such as the commonly-known 'Nigerian letter' - asking for assistance in transferring large sums of money.  Those e-mails are the work of scammers, and a new version is infiltrating online dating websites.

A victim of one of these online frauds (to protect her privacy we'll call her 'Anne') contacted 7News.  A man approached Anne on an online dating site, seemingly looking for love.  He claimed to be from New York working in construction as a contractor, and had contacts overseas - including Nigeria.  Anne says she soon discovered the truth.

She's a widow, and she had decided to try the online dating community.  "I like to get to know someone through lengthy e-mails," she said.  "It might be a fun way to get to know another person from another part of the country.  I also wanted to kind of get to know someone who wasn't from this area, and maybe had a different perspective."

Anne says she honestly described herself in her online profile, and a man who said his name was Steve contacted her.  She says he claimed to be a widower, and while she was cautious of Nigerian letter scams, she though the daily chats were really - especially when he wanted to e-mail her off of the dating site.  "I didn't expect to be approached in the way I was approached, with someone who I thought I could trust," she said.  "They built my trust from one successive e-mail to the next."

Steve was a phony, and Lawton Police say they get calls about this - and other types - of fraud daily.  "It's a very innocent and naïve approach, sometimes, but these are predators, and they prey on people that have all the best intentions in the world," said Lawton Police Detective Rick McCollister.  "That's how they fall victim to these people."

Anne says the sweet-talking continued through e-mails, and then he got her phone number.  She says he sent her text-messages throughout the day, and showed them to 7News.  "There's, 'Sweetie, good morning, I love you so much.'"  After a couple of weeks, Anne says he told her he wanted to marry her, but the next day she discovered that she was a victim of fraud.  "He actually asked me, 'Okay I'm having trouble with my contract in Nigeria, and I need you to wire me $200 to my personal assistant in Nigeria,'" she said.  "I immediately shot back, 'You are scamming me!'"

McCollister says she did the right thing.  "I think she handled it very correctly - just very abrupt, very direct, 'No, I'm not going to talk to you anymore.'  That was a good response."

Fortunately, Anne didn't get scammed out of any money, but she did have to change her phone numbers because of constant harassment from Steve.  "It just makes me feel really sickened, embarrassed," she said.  "And yet, it makes me feel empowered to be able to talk to other people, and say, 'Please be aware that this is another way you can be scammed.'"

McCollister says to be careful about what information you give out on the internet, and if you feel like you are the victim of fraud, contact the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.  Anne says she realizes some people may raise their eyebrows at online dating, but she knows there are a lot of good people out there.  One popular service claims more than 15-million members, and boasts 20-thousand new members each day.  Those numbers also indicate a lot of potential scam victims.