Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I've Never Been Scammed...but My Friend Has

I've Never Been Scammed...but My Friend Has: Understanding the Aftermath of a Friend's Scam

by Soraya Grant

Your friend has something to tell you. For the past several months, he or she has been chatting via Yahoo Messenger, text message, and phone conversation with a woman or man. They met on a website. Your friend believed they had found the love of their life, but recently realized the other person was not who they claimed to be. Your friend is the victim of a romance scam. As your friend goes through the process of healing, you may notice some odd behaviors.

He or She May Want Revenge

You may find your friend intensely angry, even if they were never the type to be consumed by rage before. Avoid scolding the person, telling them to calm down, or coaxing them to see things from the scammer's point of view. This only sends the message that the victim has no right to be upset.

At the same time, encourage your friend to channel their anger in a safe way. The right way to get revenge against a scammer is to educate yourself and others about scams, their warning signs, and aftermath. Education about scams will help people to recognize scammers right away and avoid communicating with them at all. Every time you help someone avoid engaging with a scammer, you ruin a scammer's attempt at victimizing one more person. Taking away their targets is the only thing that will truly hurt a scammer.

Never under any circumstances should you encourage anyone to confront a scammer directly. It doesn't matter if you've seen a television show or special where a scammer was confronted and nobody was hurt. Click over a few channels and you can also find about ten times as many shows about people being kidnapped, assaulted, and killed by individuals and gangs of people in their own country and abroad. If the scam was run by a gang in Nigeria or another country in that region, there is no way your friend even knows who they were talking to at any one time, and would only be confronting a random group of very dangerous criminals. Even if the scam was run by someone in your friend's own country and they have a real name and a few real details, they still have absolutely no idea what type of person they were actually talking to, or who else was involved in the scam. Never encourage anyone to confront a scammer directly either online or offline.

Your Friend Might Behave as Though the Online Persona is Real At Times

One minute your friend is telling you about a scam. The next words out of their mouth are something along the lines of "We were planning a trip to the Grand Canyon this summer." or "I had my heart set on decorating the entire house in white when we moved in together." This is to be expected, especially early in the scam. Your friend has been brainwashed into believing this created character was not only a real person but the love of their life. It is going to take some time to fully accept that this was just a character created and playacted by someone who didn't care about them at all. You should start noticing larger and larger gaps between the times your friend talks about the scam as though it were real as time goes on.

Your friend may also behave as anyone else would if their beloved boyfriend or girlfriend died. This is probably a bit confusing to you. This was just a character somebody created to trap them, so you would think they'd react about the same way they would react to their favorite television character turning evil and then dying. While it is true that the characters created by scammers are no more real than the ones you read about in books or see on television, there is one important difference. You knew your favorite character was made up from the start and did not interact with them as though they were a real person. The scammer didn't just create a character and allow your friend to watch it or read about it. That scammer or group of scammers used brainwashing tactics to convince your friend this character was a real person, and engaged in further emotional manipulation to make your friend believe this person loved them. For your friend, somebody they loved just ceased to exist.

They will likely come to accept that this person never existed as they heal. In the meantime, it is important to strike a balance in talking to them. Don't play along and behave as though the fake person were real, but don't snap at them to stop being ridiculous or scold them for not moving on fast enough.

If your friend says, "BoyfriendX and I were going to go to the Mall of America for my birthday," a gentle "You mean the scammer wanted you to believe you had a trip planned with BoyfriendX for your birthday" is much more effective than either "Oh cool. What stores were you planning to visit?" or "Knock it off. You know that wasn't real."

There Could Be Some Changes in Your Friend's Attitude about Flirting, Dating, etc.

Some people became overly interested in the opposite sex right after a scam. They seem to need to "prove" that their are real men or women out there who will be attracted to them. Whether this is a good idea or a bad idea depends entirely on your friend's temperament, personality, situation, and specific behaviors. Treat this situation the way you would treat your friend behaving this way for any other reason, just remember there is a lot of pain driving it, and avoid adding to that pain.

Others do not want to have anything to do with attracting people, dating, or anything in that area. These scam victims do not even want a happily married opposite sex friend to tell them they always thought they were attractive and should meet their spouse's single cousin sometime or have a same sex friend tell them they wish they looked like them. If it has anything to do with being attractive or dating, they just don't want to be a part of it. Again, treat them the way you would treat them if they lost their interest in men or women for any other reason, keeping aware of the situation behind it.

Your Friend May Have Renewed Interest in an Old Hobby or Topic

This is a sign of healing. Scammers mentally and/or physically isolate their victims to prevent them from talking about the "relationship" to a person who might point out all the holes in their stories and red flags in their behaviors. It is very likely your friend had to give something up to devote all their time to online chats with this person. It is also common for scammers to give their victims little tests to gauge how willing the individual is to do what they say or believe their words. It could be something as simple as telling them they hate white tee shirts, just to see if the victim logs on to cheerfully announce they donated all their white tee shirts to the thrift store today or the scammer may have created a character who loves golf, and delighted when the victim gave up gardening and took up golf. They don't really care what the person wears or does for fun, they just want to make sure they'll be willing to go with what they say when it's time to ask them to reship a package or send items or money. If your friend is taking back a style, hobby, interest, or habit they gave up for the person they believed to be their boyfriend or girlfriend, this is a sign that the scammer's hold is lessening.

They Might Want to Perform Some Type of Ceremony to Say "Goodbye."

Your friend wanting to say "goodbye" to the person they thought they knew is something that may seem absolutely bizarre, but is another sign of healing. Allow them to do what they need to do, within the bounds of safety and reason. Some people need to have a traditional "funeral" for the person they thought loved them. It is okay to decline to participate in any kind of ceremony or religious act that goes against your own spiritual beliefs, but avoid making fun or or making light of your friend for doing this. He or she may need it in order to let go.Others may need to simply take a day to gather up the clothes they bought to wear on their first date, the cell phone they bought to talk to the one who turned out to be invented, and the stuffed animal they were sent and get rid of it all. Help with this as much as you can and as much as the person wants you to. Offer to go with them to pick out a new cell phone or clothes, but don't take it personally if they refuse. They might need to do this alone.

The Friend May "Need" to Do Seemingly Trivial Things

As long as the person is being safe and reasonable, this is a good sign. Your friend could need to do a few things to reclaim control over their life. Perhaps they need to take some of that time they spent chatting online with the scammer back for themselves and have a few afternoons hiking, golfing, gardening, playing tennis, or visiting the mall or the spa instead of cleaning the house or meeting for coffee as they normally would. One scammer arranged an elaborate first date with the victim as part of the scam, leaving the place up to the victim to make it seem real and keep the victim involved in planning a trip that would never happen. The victim chose her favorite building in her city. After the scam was discovered, the victim needed to visit her favorite building just to show herself that it was just a pretty building in her city, and that she still had the right to enjoy it and make new, genuine memories there.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Excuses Excuses: Allowing Yourself to See the Red Flags of a Scammer

by Soraya Grant

The "red flags" of a scammer are featured on almost every web site and television show devoted to stopping online romance scammers. We should all know them by now, and once a target fully accepts the fact that they were scammed, they are easy to pinpoint. Looking back, many scam victims realize they did indeed see these seven common red flags, but made numerous excuses for the person they thought they were talking to.

Red Flag 1: The person tells you he or she loves you within days, weeks, or a couple months of meeting you online.

Excuse: "When you know you've found the one, you just know."

Breaking Through: If you only know someone online, you don't know them well enough to know you love them and you certainly don't know anyone you only met a few weeks or months ago well enough to make that determination. Even if it could happen, keeping a relationship strictly online, pressuring for a commitment, and acting hurt if the object of affection resists is not the way anyone would treat a person they genuinely loved. If this were a real person truly interested in you, they would want to meet you in a safe, respectful, public offline environment to learn all those little things that you can't learn online. They would be willing to see if a relationship might develop naturally. Tell the person you absolutely will not make a commitment to anyone you haven't met offline several times. Anyone who keeps pouring on the love talk, acts insulted or hurt, or vanishes suddenly is a scammer.

Excuse 2: "Well maybe this person just has a crush on me and is a bit socially awkward."

Breaking Through: While it is possible to develop a crush on someone you only know online, telling that person you love them and want to build a life with them is simply not adult behavior. No real adult, no matter how socially awkward, would respond to a crush from an online community by making declarations of love and devotion. Anyone who tells you they are in love with you, devoted to you, etc is trying to manipulate you, not flirt with you. Tell the person you are flattered they have a crush on you, then add that you absolutely will not make any type of declaration of devotion or promises of love to anyone you do not know well and haven't spent time with offline. If the person keeps insisting its love, acts like you've hurt their feelings, makes excuses why they can't meet, or disappears, it is a scammer.

Red Flag 2: The boyfriend or girlfriend has some connection to Nigeria, Ghana, or other country with a high concentration of scammers

Excuse: "The whole nation or region can't be nothing but scammers. Maybe my boyfriend or girlfriend really does need to travel to this region for work."

Breaking Through: It has become common knowledge that any mention of one of these nations is a definite sign of a romance scam. The person just wants you to be willing to send money to that country. Call the office of a professional in your community or nearest city who works in the same field as your online love. Ask them how many times they, or the people in their corporation, have been to Nigeria, Ghana, etc to perform the type of work your online love describes. For example, if your boyfriend claims he is a construction worker traveling to Ghana to help build a certain type of building there, call some construction companies and ask how common this type of work is. You will find these types of projects don't exist. Don't be swayed if the person has sent you photos or web pages devoted to the alleged project. Do a little more online and phone research. You will find that these photos or web sites actually belong to a completely different company or organization.

Note: This only applies to the Nigerian scam. It is possible that you are being scammed by an American scammer. In this case, Nigeria or Ghana will not be mentioned, and all their professional and location details will "check out." This does not mean you don't have a scammer. It just means you don't have a Nigerian scammer. Everything else in this article still applies to you.

Red Flag 3: The person's life does not seem to match up with the life they describe.

Excuse: "Well, people are complex. Everything about a person doesn't fit into a neat character description. We like different things, get in moods, delve into topics, and deal with situations that come up."

Breaking Through: Yes, it is possible for a guy with high class tastes to also enjoy a raunchy comedy movie from time to time, and a very busy executive may have gotten a few days off, but if the person's overall pattern of living does not mesh with the situation they describe, you are talking to a scammer. It is not possible for a person to have children who never interrupt the conversation or need to be bathed, fed, or otherwise cared for. People are not highly confident one minute and suffering from low self esteem the next. They are not wealthy today and of modest financial means the following evening. Get a journal. You can use a new document on your computer if you cannot afford to buy a notebook or don't want one lying around. Write down all of these gut feelings and twinges. You don't have to tell anyone about them, and please do not tell the online romance. Just keep them for yourself, and read them over at the end of each day. You will begin to see a strange pattern. This is a picture of a scammer forming.

Red Flag 4: Your online boyfriend or girlfriend asks you for money or drops strong hints that he or she is broke or struggling financially. Health, travel, or family problems are the cause.

Excuse: "What's the big deal? Couples discuss finances. They also help each other out. Even good friends do that."

Breaking Through: Asking your boyfriend or girlfriend or any other individual for money...or hinting and waiting for an offer... is the least effective ways to deal with a crisis or need. A million things could go wrong. Somebody who really was in trouble in a foreign country would contact their nation's embassy or ask you to make the call. They wouldn't ask you to send cash. A person who really did need a laptop or cell phone for their child and could not afford it could speak to a company that offered a lifeline phone or an organization that donated computers to needy children. An American in financial distress can apply for several programs, both through the government and through non-profit organizations that would be much more likely to be able to meet his or her needs than a gift from a boyfriend or girlfriend. Tell the person that you never send any money to anyone in any circumstance, and offer to find and send them the necessary paperwork or contact information for an outside source to meet their stated need instead. For example, if your girlfriend repeatedly tells you she can't feed her small child, offer to find the WIC office in her area and send her the contact email and number. Anyone who comes up with excuses why they can't use the resource and insists that only your money will save them is a scammer.

Red Flag 5: Your online boyfriend or girlfriend sends you small gifts such as flowers, candy or chocolate covered fruit, gift cards to your favorite store, teddy bears, or small pieces of jewelry.

Excuse: "See? He isn't asking me for money. He's spending money on me. That proves he's real."

Breaking Through: That is precisely what this person or group of people want you to think. Getting little tangible items from the person makes them seem more real. These gifts also serve as a way for scammers to verify your address with the goal of asking you to receive and reship packages for them that will turn out to be full of illegal materials. Your presents were also paid for by money stolen from other victims. Refuse to accept anything sent to you from anyone you do not know well and know offline.

Red Flag 6: The person is sometimes coherent, even eloquent and sometimes appears to have difficulty following the conversation. They say "back" when they haven't told you they were leaving the computer, can't remember things the two of you discussed yesterday, or use repeated lines.

Excuse: "He is under a lot of stress. I am also not the only person in his life. He is probably talking to his mother or cousin or platonic friends via IM as well."

Breaking Through: No matter how stressed we are, we can still speak our first language. Difficulty with a language the person has stated was their native language or a language they are fluent in is a sure sign of a Nigerian or Ghanian scammer. Scammers from Nigeria and from the US or wherever your native country is will use repeated lines to buy time when too many victims are online at once and they need to pretend each person is the only one they are talking to. Saying "back" when they haven't left your chat, not knowing what the two of you were just talking about, or missing large chunks of your dialogue are not signs of stress. These are signs that the person is struggling to keep up with all the victims he or she is juggling, or that someone else has taken a turn at the keyboard. Real people will admit they are doing a lot of things online or talking to other people and they will tell you if a friend of theirs wants to use their account to say "hello." Ask the person flat out what they are doing and who else they are talking to. If they "hem and haw," act angry or insulted, blame computer problems, or suddenly have to go, they are talking to people they do not want you to know about.

Red Flag 7: They want you to keep the relationship completely secret, swear you won't tell anyone they asked you for favors or money, and/or want you to spend all of your time communicating with them and them alone.

Excuse: "It's romantic. My boyfriend or girlfriend is just a very private person. We love spending time together."

Breaking Through: Excessive secrecy, especially about money or favors, demanding you spend all your time talking to them, and behaving with extreme amounts of jealousy are nothing more than isolation and control tactics. The person you are talking to doesn't want you around because they love you, or even like you. They don't care about you at all. They just don't want anyone else around you to point out any of these red flags or talk you out of sending money or accepting and reshipping packages for them. Refuse to keep anything beyond personal confidences that you would keep for any friend secret. Always tell somebody about any online relationships you enter into. If you are socially isolated and have no close friends or family members, tell a therapist or social worker. Never obey someone who forbids you to communicate with your family, or tells you who you can and cannot be friends with or talk to, online or off. Even if this were coming from a real person, these are emotionally abusive behaviors and should never be tolerated from anyone.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Military profiles and scammers

Recently I have noticed a surge in Military personnel profiles being used on Facebook and dating sites, and the concerns about socializing with them while on deployment. This is a big concern for me, and it should be for you too, as the person you are communicating with is likely to be a scammer, not a military hero.

I reached out to my nephew who is now a retired US Marine. He was among the first to be deployed to Afghanistan, and then first troops to attack Baghdad in the beginning of bringing down Saddam Hussein. Before going to those countries, his base was on lock down, which means they were not to leave their base for any reason.  Their bags were packed and ready for when they got their orders to deploy. He hadn’t had access to his personal computer or any social sites to go on, his cell phone was even limited to use.  While waiting for those orders he trained 9 to 10 hours a day, getting up at 5am and doing maneuvers with his troop or attending special classes to learn the culture where they were going and combat drills. By the end of the day he came home tired and slept most of the time.  His entire troop was on heightened readiness, just waiting to get that call.
Yes, our military does allow our troops to have access to social media sites. The government allows this so that personnel who are on deployment overseas communicate with family and friends. With that said, the Military also has rules and regulations that must be followed and personnel must adhere to those rules. Commanders control who can have access and which social networking sites personnel uses. Our troops have access to the military’s computers, not personal computers brought from home; therefore the restriction using them is high priority.  It can be shut down for any malicious usage.

Once deployed to those countries, his troop was high alert:  no more emails to his wife and kids and nor to his mother. When he could talk to them or send messages, he was not allowed to talk about his location or tell them anything about what he was doing. A typical day was getting up & putting on all of their armor gear. They would set out in armored trucks with special communication devices not accessible to the public. They would patrol the streets, search homes and deactivate any suspicious devices found, some safely and some that ended up in injuries. These patrols would last all day and into the night.  Some of these patrols were in hostile territory and in places where electricity is hard to come by.  Laptops and/or cell phones were not part of their regulation gear.  In these countries, cell towers were not common as here and if a tower is there, it is for opposite usage and not ours.  When their maneuver was over, they returned to their base. Yes, they had down time. Some would play games with other enlisted men and women; others would check up on emails or make calls to their families.  Mostly, this down time was used to clean up their gear and get ready for their next patrol, or just plain sleep.

The Military has made strides in allowing the personnel to popular social networking sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter; however it is still up to the individual’s Commanding Officer what can be said or used on those sites.  The Commanding Officer can shut them down if deemed necessary or restrict certain sites all together. The soldier who uses these sites can never give away his position, tell what they are doing and can be reprimanded if they do. Some commanders limit the friendship the soldier has on those sites and some even forbid adding new contacts or befriending anyone without permission. Advocates for these soldiers are trying to limit that control, but still it is ultimately up to the commander. This rule also applies to non-military personnel, one who are there on private contracts for the military.

I read an article once asking women why they are more attracted to our military personnel. When given three pictures of men two in uniform and one in business suite, the majority of women picked first the solider in his fatigues, second was either police officer or firefighter and last was the man in a business suite. When asked why these women chose them, they replied that solider attracted them as being a strong person, trustworthy and protective. Same question was asked about the police officer and firefighter and the response was these men show masculinities for being protective; they put themselves last to protect other. Now with the business man the response wasn’t exactly the same, women said they had a head for making money, would be a good provider but wasn’t as protective for them. Also they mentioned that the military personnel just looked good in uniform and well I cannot dispute that one. There is something to be said about a man in uniform.
Now that leads me to: How can you befriend a military soldier on Facebook, communicate with them for hours at time and at different times of the day? With all of their responsibilities while on deployment it is not feasible to chat for long periods of time and on military computers. Scammers take advantage of these social sites, lure men and women to befriend them, chat for hours.  They know how we feel pride in our Military people, they take advantage that we respect them and have trust in them. Why else would another human person put their lives on the line every day to protect us? And then the scammer makes promises to come see you and usually they will ask for funds to help bring them home or to travel to your country.

When a soldier signs up for two to four year contract with the government, they are held to the contract to the very end. When their contract is up during times of war or deployment, it is up to their commander to either grant passage back to States or extend their contract. Soldiers are given time off while on deployment, but they cannot leave that country unless it is back to the States. The government supplies them with the transportation back home either to serve out their contract or to discharge them from service. The government will not send an active soldier to another country first before being discharged. Vacations to them are same as ours:   they have to be requested in writing when they would like to take their leave and it may be granted or denied without reason. Special permission must be granted also if a soldier needs emergency leave for family illness or death.  They just cannot take vacation and leave their post especially to another country, and they still can be called back to post at any given time no matter the cause or reason.

Once sent back to the States and discharge is granted, only then can that person make plans to visit another country at their own expense. They are now a civilian. And if you have ever known someone in the military, you know that being discharged is not a quick process. As for non-military contract persons, they have made arrangements with their companies for financial support and supplies. It a big red flag when your chat buddy tells you their credit cards are frozen, or that they cannot access them, or they lost the money and need funds to finish the job. The government takes special care when hiring these contractors.  Formal bid processes are used to identify what resources are needed and how much they will cost. If they over-extend themselves, the contract is terminated and another contractor is sent in.

Now I am not saying we shouldn’t communicate with our military personal.  The government has official sites you can go under and befriend them or like their posts and play games. If you are speaking with someone who says they are military, ask questions and a lot of them. If they don’t respond right away or avoid your questions, that means they are doing their research, googling the answers. Other red flags: being asked for money to supply their works or to fly to meet you. It’s important to be proactive nowadays on social site. Scammers do their research and very well. They know just what to say to reel you in their web of lies;  know the right loving words that we all like to hear, and sometimes needs to hear. Military IP’s will identify government or where a person is stationed, so if you check the IP address of an email, it should indicate a military installation. If your IP is binged to yahoo’s home site or Google’s home site that is a sign that person is not real.

Another thing to consider, as troops finally begin to come home, there are fewer troops in Baghdad or Kabul.  There is now more turmoil there and with recent bombings, chaos has erupted, leaving what troops we have there less and less time to spend on the internet chatting.  Please be careful for yourself and for your hearts. And I hope this helps clear up some of your doubts about who you are chatting with.