Looking For Love In The Online Snake Pit

Looking For Love In The Online Snake Pit

Some scandals reported as shocking are shocking for reasons other than those implied in the coverage. One would be the online scam that bilked millions from businesses, the elderly and women looking for romance.

Federal prosecutors say this is one of the biggest online swindles in U.S. history. The fraud centered mainly on Nigerian nationals who would impersonate American servicemen stationed overseas. They’d strike up intimate conversations of the you’re-the-woman-I’ve-been-waiting-for variety. Once the conmen sensed ardor and trust, they would ask the women to send them money.

And the women did. Sometimes large sums to people they never set eyes on or even talked to on the phone.

It’s good that law enforcement has charged at least 80 of the crooks here and abroad and arrested 14, mostly in the Los Angeles area. But how does one protect this sort of victim? The most you can do for these women is confiscate their keyboards.

One woman emptied $91,000 from her bank account and wired the money to wherever she was told to do so. The most astounding sum, $200,000, was lifted from a Japanese woman who thought she was sending it to a U.S. Army captain in Syria. (She reportedly had borrowed the money from friends and relatives. Didn’t they inquire where it was going?)

Moderately informed citizens know that scammers are squirming to get into their lives. Never give any personal information over the phone. Lonely elders are especially vulnerable to a friendly sounding voice, and in many cases, cognitive decline leaves them defenseless.

But the online victims give away their savings with no sensory contact at all — just typed words. If a woman wanted to continue these romantic conversations as entertainment, no harm done. If she truly believed she had found a soul mate in cyberspace, well, women have been led up the garden path for as long as there have been gardens.

But isn’t a request for money from an alleged admirer you’ve never met a honking, blinking neon light that something is amiss? One of the hooks, of course, is the fiction that the correspondent is a U.S. serviceman in need. Lots of scams are sold as helping American soldiers.

Two surprising elements of the story. One is that some of the targets come off as quite intelligent. The other is that some are not too embarrassed to publicly admit they’ve been taken to the cleaners by such a simple-minded hoax. The women interviewed seemed to regard themselves as pure victims, not at all responsible for what happened to them.

CBS News talked to a highly attractive, articulate middle-aged woman who had been marked in 2012. (I won’t mention her name.)

“He got my heart, and my head just went with it,” she said from her well-appointed study. “You’ve lied to me for over two years, and you’ve stolen over a million dollars from me.” Is it possible that she sent this online phantom over $1 million, just like that? And really, how could a heated romance go on for two years without one meeting?

Again, I’m glad they’ve caught some of these creeps. But this particular scheme is just a tiny outcropping of a criminal enterprise that anyone in a bathrobe can run from his (or her) laptop. Online scams cost people $143 million last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The unsettling reality is this: If these women hadn’t been prey for this easy fraud, someone else surely would have ripped them off. Imagine if a handsome guy had actually met them in person, showed affection, bought them a drink and then asked for money. Read the advice columns. Happens all the time.


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Tim Scott
Sen. Tim Scott

Watching Tim Scott's announcement speech, I was struck by how differently I would have responded to his message 10 years ago. In 2013 I wrote: "It's to their credit that Republicans are obsessed with getting the government to address its unconscionable and unmanageable debt, freeing up the productive private sector to create economic growth and maintaining the nation's military preeminence."

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