(NEW YORK) — Men and women looking for prospective romantic partners online should take note of these two: Laura Cahill, who described herself as an aspiring young model living in Paris, and Britney Parkwell, who pointed to her relative youth as a 27-year-old from sunny San Jose, California.
There’s one big problem: Despite profiles that said they were seeking love online, they never existed.
They were fake personas created as part of an elaborate scheme run out of Africa to con hundreds of thousands of dollars from vulnerable Americans, according to the California-based cyber-security firm Agari.
A firm report details how men and women were targeted by fraudsters.
Crane Hassold, the senior director of threat research at Agari, spent 11 years at the FBI profiling criminals and told ABC News these scams often prey on the most vulnerable people.
“At the end of the day, when you look at cyber threats, we always think of cyber threats as technical things and a lot of people equate cyber threats to malware, but at the end of the day most cyber threats are social engineering,” Hassold said in a phone interview.
He said he’s seen farmers and religious people fall victim the most to this type of scam.
The Federal Trade Commission says, overall, Americans lost $143 million on romance scams last year.
Hassold notes that these scams often have a low rate of success.
In the report, researchers warn that individuals and businesses are “far more likely to be targeted by West African crime groups” than by hackers working for the Russian or North Korean governments.
The online love scam reviewed by Agari was largely based in Nigeria, the report concluded. And while many unsuspecting Americans have likely received emails from scammers claiming to be “a Nigerian prince,” Agari’s new report focuses on a scam that is far more elaborate and believable, especially because it preys on vulnerable people searching for love, according to the report.
The report includes emails from scammers with phrases the firm says might tip off the recipient.
“I also have several pairs of shoes. I am open to a new things and i am willing to try different stuff but if it doesn’t match with my personality i won’t wear it. I use facial cleansers at times, Lotions and eye creams. I generally don’t smell,” one email from the Laura Cahill persona reads.
Another email suggests that in addition to her favorite foods being sushi and tacos, “candy yams” were also a favorite. Candy Yams, as the report notes are a favorite West African dish.
The Laura Cahill persona was one of the most commonly-used fake identities, and it employed actual pictures from a real person. Specifically, scammers posted fake profiles on dating sites and waited for victims to send them an email, which allowed scammers to then engage in dialogue to test their targets’ gullibility and willingness to send money, the Agari report said.
One way the scammers would allegedly persuade victims to send money with the Laura Cahill persona was to convince them that “Laura” wanted to travel from Paris to visit the victim, but her credit card was frozen. So, the scammers would tell victims, “Laura” needed help paying for an airline ticket — and that sending a money order could resolve the issue.
If the victim expressed hesitation, there was even a “travel agent” willing to reassure the victim that the funds were, in fact, going to pay for travel, which was sent from a different email and made to look like a legitimate invoice.
According to the Agari report, one victim fell hard for the Laura persona, sending almost $50,000 to scammers. After almost a year of sending money, the man was convinced that they were meant for each other despite “Laura” offering excuse after excuse for not meeting up, according to Agari.
The relationship abruptly ended when “Laura” stopped responding to messages from the man, who was not named in the report.
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