But, the only thing that ran away from the 36-year-old single mother’s life of hardship would eventually be all her savings and the security she had entrusted with “Walter.”
Meade, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was one of millions of people who flock to the Internet each year in search of romance and a long term relationship. Like many single women, the Midwestern mother of two and caretaker for her ailing father found many possibilities and opportunities when it came to men online.
Entering a Yahoo! Chat room one evening after working the night shift at her retail job, she met a man only a state away who enchanted her from the moment she first spoke with him.
“He was extremely intelligent and came across as very romantic and genuinely interested in me,” Meade said. “I thought he was too good to be true.”
Chatting nightly over Yahoo! Messenger from October 2006 through February 2007, Walter, a self-described white collar engineer and college sports enthusiast, ended up taking the spellbound Meade for the ride of her life.
“We were going to get married,” she recalls, fighting back tears. “But, then, he told me he had lost his job, was laid off, and that he was in need. So, I did what I would have done for any man I was invested in like that. I gave him the money.”
After transferring $7,000 to Walter’s bank account from her own savings account, Meade says her chats with the man became less frequent, and finally, stopped altogether.
“I was taken for a fool,” Meade said, “and I was heartbroken.”
The Nigerian Scam Moves to IM
But, while Walter had fallen on hard times, a Nigerian man thousands of miles away was making a killing as part of an operation of scammers who target men and women into romantic relationships only to leave them high and dry.
“You never think you can become a victim until it happens to you,” Meade said. “But, with as many people as there are online, the Internet is ripe with people these scam men can sucker into their scheme.”
Each year, thousands of men and women use the Internet to meet potential dates and perhaps, potential spouses. According to a 2007 Synovate survey, 15 percent of Internet users use online personal sites and other Internet mediums to meet people for romantic pursuits.
But, while the person on the other end of your IM window might seem legitimate, how can you tell?
One of the longest running scams by mail and the Internet, the Nigerian or 419 scam, alleges a wealthy business owner or government official needs help transferring millions of dollars out of his country in exchange for a percentage of the funds for your help. But, after agreeing to help, the scammer often asks for your assistance in providing some money to help get the money in transit as it is tied up, according to David Emery, About.com’s Guide to Urban Legends.
Today, the scam has moved to IM, where the new operation involves fake photos and false identities while costs hundreds of people thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars each every year.
Meade just so happened to be one of them.
“After reporting the incident to both federal and local law enforcement, I was told I probably shouldn’t expect to see the money ever again,” she said. “And, I didn’t.”
Protecting Yourself on IM
While the Internet can be a worthwhile place to meet new friends and possible love interests, people should be cautious at taking claims and contacts at face value, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
The online FBI and National White Collar Crime Center partnership, responsible for investigating and tracking thousands of complaints each year, suggests the following when dealing with individuals or businesses online:
- Never reveal personal information in a chatroom online
- Do not assume an individual or company is legitimate based on appearances, proof
- Do not reply to requests for bank account or other financial information
- Be wary of individuals who claim to represent a foreign government
- If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
If you believe you are the victim of an Internet scam, report the scam to the Internet Crime Complain Center and to your local law enforcement offices.
Make sure to keep any IM chats, emails or other records you may have received (you will need to enable IM logging) as evidence, as law enforcement agencies may need to retain these documents.