Online Scammers Pilfered Americans of More Than $10 Billion in 2022
He was the fourth of five children, and all of them enrolled at university, although the family could really not afford it. Low on funds in impoverished Nigeria, Chris Maxwell thought it would be good to make a few bucks with online scamming and help himself and his siblings.
He chose romance scams, and he found older divorced American women to be easy prey.
“Americans have so many failed marriages. They try marriage, it fails, they get divorced, they love someone else, they try again, they divorce, and at the end of the day, they are just trying to find someone to love them again, and they start going on dating sites, Facebook, Tinder, and stuff like that,” he told OCCRP.
“It becomes a weakness for them; they can’t get that need out of their lives, and it’s easy for Nigerian boys to get in. They make themselves an easy target,” Maxwell said.
He ultimately left the trade after realizing that he had destroyed a human being.
“I met a woman, her name was Lisa, I scammed her out of around $20,000. It was a lot of money, good money,” Maxwell said. “I was lying to her. She became sick, she became depressed, seeing doctors, you know, her kids stopped talking to her because she's more focused on me than her family.”
Eventually, Maxwell’s guilty conscience prompted him to come forward to Lisa and end the charade, but he was just one of thousands of similar scammers who together siphoned an amount equal to the GDP of a small nation out of lonely Americans.
Americans lost more than US$10 billion to online scammers last year, mostly to romance fraudsters who duped the victims into sending money for a medical emergency, an unexpected legal fee, or any other invented problem, a cybersecurity investigations group said.
A report released by Social Catfish, which mostly focused on the impact of the crime in the U.S., found that Americans were the most targeted by online scammers last year, with nearly half a million victims. However, proportionate to its total population, the U.K. was the largest victim with just over 280,000 victims among its 67 million citizens.
The $10 billion stolen from Americans through a variety of online scams was more than the GDP of 66 countries, according to Social Catfish. The overwhelmingly most common types of scams were romance scams.
Romance scams occur when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust and then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and steal from the victim.
According to the cyber safety watchdog TechShielder, romance scams exploded during the pandemic, and fraudsters from the Philippines were responsible for the highest number of dating scam cases in 2021.
Ranking in second place were Nigerian scammers. The country became a mecca for this type of crime in the 1990s when the proliferation of internet cafes coincided with falling oil prices and rising unemployment in the West African state.
Now, new technologies like AI are making the web even more dangerous, according to the group, giving scammers the ability to convincingly imitate loved ones.
“The explosion of AI has given us a glimpse into the future of scams with new tactics such as ‘voice cloning’ and ‘deep fake’ videos, making it look and sound like you are giving money to someone you know, trust, or love,” Social Catfish said.
“Victims of online scams – whether it be investment, romance, cryptocurrency, or others – often lose their life savings, and some even take their own lives,” the report pointed out. “In our analysis, we found that only 4.2% of lost monetary assets were recovered in 2022.”
The true costs of the scams may be far higher than recorded as well, since some 81% of the victims of the romance scams polled by the group said they were too afraid or embarrassed to report the theft to law enforcement.
The elderly are not the only ones vulnerable to such scams, according to Social Catfish. While those over 60 were still the victims of significantly more crimes than those under 20, the number of teen victims has been rising year by year.
“In the last five years, money lost by victims 20 and younger grew nearly 2,500% from 2017 to 2022, compared to 805% for seniors,” Social Catfish told OCCRP in an email. “Victims under 20 lost $8.2 million in 2017, compared to $210 million in 2022. Seniors remain by far the most victimized group overall, losing $3.1 billion in 2022, but the surge of young victims speaks to the growing sophistication of scammers.”