Eastern Europe, with a highly-educated population and high unemployment rate, is fertile ground for romance confidence scams.
Due diligence may not be very romantic, says this international investigator.
But it can save you thousands of dollars…and a broken heart.
There are no reliable stats for how many Americans fall prey to online dating scams every year. A lot of victims are too embarrassed to report the crime. Scammers target the vulnerable—widows and widowers, the elderly, the lonely and isolated. They ask their marks to send money for travel expenses, steal their identities, or even, occasionally, convince them to commit crimes.
Investigator John Harper heads his firm’s Eastern European investigations team and answers a few questions about the challenges of due diligence in the former Soviet sphere. Harper is lead investigator for Russia PI™—a wholly owned subsidiary of Wymoo International, a Florida-based professional private investigation company specializing in international background checks and due diligence.
Harper manages the firm’s investigations for Eastern Europe, including Russia, the Ukraine and Romania—”three countries in the region where we see the highest risk for fraud and scam activity,” he says. Russia PI™ investigators are based in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev and conduct due diligence, background checks, surveillance, and asset searches in both countries.
The firm’s goal, says Harper, is “to lower the risk for businesses and individuals looking to do business in a foreign country, lower the risk for online dating, and to verify companies and individuals met via the internet.”
Harper has been a private investigator for a decade, and he worked in law enforcement and military investigations prior to joining Wymoo®and Russia PI.
Is Eastern Europe rife with online dating scams?
We work in over 100 countries, and Russia and Ukraine rank among the top highest risk countries in the world for dating scams. (Other high-risk countries include Malaysia, Philippines, Romania, Colombia, U.A.E., the U.K., Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.) In this region, we’re seeing internet- and tech-savvy internet criminals working with beautiful women (or their photos) to scam foreigners in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K.
Each country is slightly unique in its criminal activity and approach to dating scams. In Russia and Ukraine, online dating and matchmaking are popular industries. There are lots of foreign men seeking relationships and possible marriage with women in Russia and the Ukraine, which means that many relationships start via the internet, usually via an online dating or social networking site, or local matchmaking site based out of one of these countries.
With limited economic opportunity and the hope for a better life, many honest women use these services; but there are also a growing number of internet criminals who hope to cash in on easy profits—and many of them do.
How do these scams work?
Scams can be very complex and aren’t always simple requests for money. In many cases, the subject will meet the victim in person in Russia or Ukraine and spend time reassuring him that she’s serious about marriage and leaving her country. The objective is to gain the victim’s trust and obtain as much personal data about him as possible. Eventually, the subject will ask for financial assistance, steal the victim’s identity, or use private photos and personal data as blackmail.
In many cases, we find that men are behind the most elaborate scams; but it’s an equal opportunity crime, and many fraudulent marriage agencies are also involved.
Many clients tell us the subject has never asked for money, so they don’t see how they can be a victim. This is a common misconception, and criminals are well aware that asking for money early on is less profitable. We have even seen cases where viruses are sent in the form of an attachment from an online dating partner, and the virus in turn obtains all the victims’ passwords and financial accounts. Online crooks are getting creative.
At what point in the process do you usually get called in? In the beginning, or once the damage is done?
Unfortunately, too many clients contact us once they become suspicious and damage is done. We urge people to consider a professional background check investigation as a form of insurance, and something that is best applied early in the relationship. The worst cases are when the marriage has already taken place, and the client finds out that his bride is a fraud.
How do you do due diligence and background checks in places like Russia and Ukraine?
We have our own team of highly trained investigators in Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Nearly our entire team of field investigators are former law enforcement or military. We have contacts at most government agencies, we speak the language, and we have our eyes and ears on the ground in the local area to uncover evidence for our clients.
Searching public records is of limited value even in countries like the U.S. In Russia and the Ukraine (and nearly all developing countries), searching public records is typically of little value and in many cases must be done manually. There is no $19.99 magical database one-can search.
As with all international verifications and due diligence, it is essential to have someone on the ground conducting local inquiries, who has access to local records, and who can speak the language and uncover actual evidence.
Is working in the former Soviet sphere risky, in terms of tangling with labyrinthine local laws or with organized crime?
Our investigations are conducted according to local laws in each country where we operate. In general, criminal activity is higher in many developing countries, which is why we hire former law enforcement and military professionals. When needed, our team is accompanied by uniformed officers.
How do language and cultural barriers factor into the business?
All our investigators, in all 100 countries, are locals with former military and/or law enforcement training. You can’t have an American following a Filipino national in Manila, and you can’t have a private investigator from West Virginia conducting surveillance or obtaining evidence in Russia. To get the evidence, you need a local investigations firm or international investigation company with field investigators on the ground who speak the same language and have access to local records. No exceptions.
“Does the firm have trained investigators on the ground?” This is THE most important question for clients seeking international investigation.
Why do dating scams work?
Dating scams work because it is very difficult to verify who you are dealing with over the internet. People are lonely and want to believe in something. It doesn’t take a fool to be a victim. We’ve seen attorneys, doctors and yes, police officers fall victim to online dating scams. Anyone using online dating or social media can be a victim.
How can people protect themselves from scams if they choose to use international dating services?
Protect your private information and personal data. Share less about yourself online. Never send money to anyone you’ve never met. If you think the relationship has potential, consider a background check.
What should people do if they suspect they’ve been victims of a dating scam?
Contacting the FBI has not been of much value to most victims, unfortunately. The FBI receives thousands of these complaints, and even if they wanted to help, they run into jurisdictional problems.
Contacting embassies for advice and help is a good idea if you’re certain you’ve been scammed. If you’re not sure, it’s best to cease all contact with the subject and consult a reputable private investigation company.