Friday, August 23, 2013

Am I Talking to a Scammer?

by Soraya Grant

Read the following short story, imagining yourself as the main character. Next, read each of the ten plot twists in bold font and ask yourself if it is a red flag or even a subtle warning sign that the person you are talking to is a scammer.

The story: You have decided to meet people online. You set up a profile on a few social networking sites, and join a chat room that seems to be mature but reasonably clean and free of fights. For the first couple months, you really enjoy your new online communities. You have a few people of the same gender you chat with regularly, and a couple opposite sex people are attractive to you, but of course they are just crushes for now.

One evening, after a particularly trying day, you meet "Chatone A" in the chat room. "A" sends you photos of a very attractive man/woman and says you are good looking too. The two of you get to know each other over the next couple of months, and exchange social networking site information in order to friend/follow each other. As you and "A" communicate, your new friend:

1. Talks about financial difficulties and asks for or hints for money:

Yes. There is no financial difficulty that can most efficiently be solved by having someone you know online send you money. Anyone who does this is attempting to set you up for a scam.

2. Tells you they have more than a crush on you. They've fallen in love:

Yes. It is possible to form some pretty strong friendships online, but it is not possible to know someone well enough to be sure you love them. Anyone who does this is attempting to scam you.

3. Always wants to talk about music, bands, and singers:

No. This is not a warning sign of a scam. It is a perfectly ordinary topic of conversation between friends.

4. Brags about their extensive collection of comic books:
Are you talking to a scammer?

No. Bragging is not pleasant, but it doesn't indicate a scammer. Some people are simply full of themselves. Others get nervous talking to new people and start chattering in a way that can come across as bragging.

5. Wants to engage in "sexting" or "cybersex:"

Maybe. Many scammers do try to get their victims to believe they are engaging in cybersex with an online love or crush. The scammer does this to make the victim believe the relationship is intimate, and because they think they can threaten to make it public and scare the victim into giving them more money later. On the other hand, a lot of completely real, genuine people go online for cyber "hookups." Proceed with caution, and never do anything sexual you do not want to do, with anyone.

6. Mentions an upcoming trip to Nigeria:

Yes. Any mention of Nigeria, Ghana, or any other nation known to have a high concentration of rings of scammers is a sure sign of a romance scam.

7. Expects you to change your daily schedule, cancel plans with offline friends, give up chats with online friends you've known longer, and miss out on work, hobbies, or necessary activities like errands and chores, to chat with them:

Probably. This isn't a guarantee that you are talking to a scammer, but scammers do work to disrupt their victims' eating and sleeping patterns and other daily routines. This is a common mind control tactic. It would be a good idea to back off from this person anyway. Even if they turn out to be genuine, attempting to control your life is a sign of an abusive individual.

8. Tells you they are a single parent of a twelve year old and a seven year old, but only has to leave your chat for an "emergency" once, and never has to ask you to hold on while they help with homework, prepare meals, enforce household rules, check on somebody playing upstairs or outside, or address a kid who is interrupting the chat. Chatone A also seems oddly unfamiliar with parenting issues you bring up:

Yes. A person who describes one life to you but appears to be leading a very different life is displaying a strong red flag of a scammer. Your new friend probably does not even have children, and if they do, they are probably not raising them alone. You can expect these children to feature in an upcoming story about health problems, money problems, or other "favors" your friend will ask you to solve.

9. Repeatedly says "I am the type of person who will never hurt you. You can trust me with anything:"

Yes. Repeated lines in a chat are a solid red flag. You may be talking to a Nigerian or other foreign scammer who does not really speak English and is cutting and pasting their dialogue from other web sites or other peoples' profiles. Both foreign and American scammers also use repeated lines to buy time when too many victims log on at once and they are having trouble keeping up.

10. Tells you all your opposite sex friends just want to sleep with you and are jealous of you and Chatone A, cuts down all your same sex friends, and tells you your family would never understand how special your relationship is:

Probably. Scammers use social isolation because it is a very easy mind control tactic. Once their voice is the only one you hear, they have no trouble getting you to believe everything they say. Completely genuine people who abuse their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, and friends emotionally also use isolation. If someone is doing this to you, cut off all ties with them. Even if they turn out to be genuine, this is someone you do not want to be close to.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

When To Seek Professional Help

By Soraya Grant

Anyone who has been scammed, or who believes they may be in a relationship with, or even just talking to someone they suspect of being a scammer is more than welcome to use the resources listed here at Scams of the Heart. We also warmly welcome those who were not scammed themselves, but are concerned about a family member, housemate, or friend. We also encourage our readers to seek support in their offline communities. In some cases, that may mean professional counseling or other mental health help.

We urge you to seek help if:

You are thinking of harming yourself

It does not matter what you did before, during, or after the scam. You do not deserve to die for it. If you are thinking of killing yourself, or seriously harming yourself in any way, we urge you to please visit your nearest hospital or mental health clinic, speak to your pastor, rabbi, or other clergyperson or spiritual advisor right away, or call or log on to a suicide hotline immediately.

You have the urge to harm other people or pets

Violence toward yourself or anyone else is never a productive way to deal with any part of the scam. If you fear you may hurt a family member, friend, or pet, please speak to someone at a hospital, clinic, religious or spiritual organization, or a crisis hotline right away. The only people who deserve anything bad to happen to them after a scam are the scammers, and the only way to punish them is to educate people to avoid becoming involved with them, thereby cutting off their supply of victims. Never act on any urge to harm another person or a pet, no matter how angry, despondent, or fed up you may be feeling. There is always a better way of handing the situation.

You are unable to return your eating, sleeping, work, or other daily patterns to normal.

Some disruption in your life is to be expected during and after the scam. It may take a while to sleep and eat normally, and you may need to take some time off work. But if nothing you do to try to get back to normal works, you haven't been able to sleep or eat well for months, and your livelihood is in jeopardy, it may be time to call the health professional of your choice and schedule an appointment.

Your fear of the scammer prevents you from leaving your home.

Even though it is not in the scammer's own interest to do more than send you some creepy messages, it is still normal to fear them for a bit. Most scam victims can remember those days when everyone and everything made them jump. But if you cannot leave your home for an extended period of time due to fear of the scammer, you may want to speak to a professional about the situation.

You aren't violent, but you do find yourself "taking it out" on other people

Nobody is in a great place right after they realize they've been the victim of an online romance scam. You are probably not going to be in the mood to hear about your sister's absolutely real kids when you just found out the child you were planning to be a stepparent to doesn't exist, or hear your friend's financial difficulties when you just gave large chunks of your savings to a someone who turned out to be a scammer. You certainly won't feel like hearing about someone's boyfriend or girlfriend or their romantic dates or how many people were attracted to them at the party last night. Pulling away from people at first is normal. Flying into verbal rages, becoming seriously angry over minor slights or rude moments, and refusing to speak to anyone for long periods unless you absolutely have to are not. Reach out for professional help any time you notice yourself treating people poorly, losing friends, or avoiding all human contact for long periods of time.

Some behavior of yours feels out of control to you or is frightening or distressing to others

Substance abuse may be the first thing that comes to mind, and if you find yourself drinking excessively, abusing other drugs, or using substances that are against the law to cope with the scam, it is certainly a good idea to seek help. But this applies to any and all behaviors, including gambling, overeating, shopping, and even excessive cleaning or personal hygiene practices, such as spending your entire eight hour day disinfecting your home or taking a series of showers in a short period of time. Anything that is causing a major disruption to your life, is upsetting someone else, or is scaring you may be a cause for concern.

Your focus on the scam and the scammer intensifies over time rather than lessens

When the pain of the scam is fresh, focusing on it is to be expected. Anyone who learned they had been scammed would need to know what happened to them and why. But in most cases, gaps begin to appear, and then increase over time. You may think of nothing but the scammer for two weeks, then realize you spent two hours playing with your grandkids without a scammer related thought. Over the next few days, you may cook a meal or write a work email without thinking of the scammer as well. In time, you only think of the scam when you dredge it up on purpose to help someone else. The timing will be different for everyone, but gaps should begin to appear and they should increase. If you find that you cannot stop thinking of the scam and the scammer for even brief periods of time, or if you find yourself becoming increasingly interested in things you only associate with the scam, it may be time to seek professional counseling.

Finding Help

The best place to look for mental health care is in your hometown or neighborhood. Look online or in the print phone directory for mental health therapists in private practice, or look for something called a "mental health center" or "behavorial health" clinic or center. The first thing you need to make sure of is that the practioner you choose is licensed. Anyone who presents him or herself as a Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Marriage and Family Therapist, Social Worker, or Licenced Professional Counselor must be licensed to practice in the state where they reside. You have the right to check up on any mental health care professional's credentials by asking them for their license number and the name of the professional body that licenses them. If you encounter someone who acts insulted, angry, hurt, or irritated when you ask for this information, or refuses to give it to you, do not use their service.

Licensing is the minimum professional qualification. A mental health professional provides a service just like any other professional, and just like any other professional, some provide excellent service, some mediocre, and some poor. If you notice that the therapist appears to be distracted, hostile, or simply uncaring and focused on their own agenda rather than your healing, you have the right to seek help from a different licensed professional. Remember that your therapist is there to provide you with the service of helping you learn to cope with the difficulties in your life. You may need to tell them information you would normally only tell a close friend in order for them to do that, but the therapist is still a professional providing a service. Report the situation to the therapist's licensing body and any supervisors they may have any time a mental health professional asks you for personal favors, flirts, makes suggestive jokes or comments, or asks you for a date, or in any situation where the person encourages you to do anything you know to be illegal, harmful to others, or dangerous.

As of this writing, there are no known mental health practioners trained specifically to deal with online romance scams and we do not know of any mental health professional who makes this the focus of his or her practice. However, you have the right to expect any professional mental health care provider to take the scam seriously. Return to your research and find another professional in your area if the therapist makes light of the scam, minimizes the pain caused by the scam, or refers to the scammer as your "ex" and behaves as though it were a real relationship.

Monday, August 5, 2013

When You Realize You Have Been Scammed

By Soraya Grant

The period right after learning you have been scammed can bring some special challenges. You are probably going through the process of grieving for the person you believed you loved, getting your eating, sleeping, and other daily routines back on track, and redisvovering your interests and tastes right now. You may also experience some unfamiliar and unsettling attitudes.

You See The Scammer Everywhere

Every time you use a new web site, anybody whose screen name is at all similar to the scammer's name or the name the scammer used with you must be the scammer. If they used their real appearance, everyone of the same gender with the same hair color makes you jump. Victims of foreign scam rings "know" the scammer is after them every time they hear someone with an accent from the country their scam originated speak. American scammers' victims are sure the scammer is following them every time they see a car with a license plate from the scammer's actual or even pretend home state.

Coping With This:

Remember that the scammer is not going to come after you. They may send you a series of threatening emails, IMs, or texts, but sending a nasty message only takes a few seconds and they can do it while they're working other victims. Taking the time to come after you would disrupt their work.

Nigerian and other foreign scam rings scam as a business. It is their primary source of income, and they'd have to spend a huge chunk of their profits on travel and take time off from "work" to come after you. They're not going to do this when it would be better for the ring's bottom line for them to just work the victims who haven't discovered the scam yet a little harder and fish for some new ones.

American money scammers run their scams as second jobs, the way you would write a monetized blog, try direct sales, or get temp jobs to pay unexpected bills, have things you want but can't afford on your normal income, or have some extra spending money. Like the Nigerian scammer, they would have to spend more money to come after you than they would make if they spent that same time period working their active scams and fishing for new ones.

Scammers who work their scams strictly for revenge are also going to stay away from their victims offline. If the scam was run by someone who chose victims at random, that person gets their thrill from manipulating and conning people. It's going to be more enjoyable for them to target someone new than it would be to come after someone who realized they were a scammer.

Even personal revenge scammers, those scammers who target a specific person in retaliation for something, will find it in their own best interest to stay away from you. The scam was cruel, but it wasn't a crime. Stalking or attacking you would be crimes. The person already got away with hurting you in a way that can't lead to any real punishment for them. They aren't going to risk getting arrested to repeat the process.

You See Somebody Else Trying to Scam, Use, or Hurt You Everywhere

Scamming is cruel, and having something cruel done to you can make you expect more cruelty. You may attempt to make new friends online and off but find yourself thinking everyone is just spending time with you to work up to asking for illegal favors or money, or is just manipulating you for their own ego. If you run into someone you've known for a while, then you assume they're only your friend because you'll give them rides or help them with their yard work or watch their kids. You're pretty sure everybody at church, political or social cause meetings, work, or school is just going to turn out to be a big jerk if you let them get close.

Coping With This:

Take a step back and evaluate every situation on a "case by case" basis. Is the new person you are talking to online displaying any red flags of being a scammer? Are they claiming a connection or love early on, hinting for money, mentioning Nigeria or Ghana, appearing to live a life that doesn't match the one they describe, using repeated lines? If they exhibit none of these signs, there is a good chance that person isn't a scammer. Is the new person you met at work showing signs they may be using you? Do they only want to spend time with you when they need favors? Are they making a big deal about finding you attractive in front of their spouse or dating partner, as though they are trying to make them jealous? Do they seem to be hiding you from all their other friends? If the answer to these are all "no," the person probably isn't using you and really wants to be your friend.

You Become Too Trusting

You still know the red flags online, but as soon as you don't see them, or as soon as you meet someone offline and are sure they're not hiding their entire life, you are so happy to meet someone genuine, you leap into a friendship or dating relationship with them. It's just so nice to be talking to someone who isn't a scammer.

Coping With This:

Evaluate situations that feel good on a case by case basis just as you would evaluate situations that make you suspicious on a case by case basis. The world is not neatly divided into scammers and wonderful people. There are plenty of people out there, online and offline, that may not be playing fake people or fake versions of themselves to lure you into fake relationships for money or revenge, but still don't have your best interests at heart. Unmoderated "clean chat" chat rooms may have been set up for friendship, but many of them are full of people who only want to talk to you until they can work the conversation around to finding out if you're someone they find physically attractive so they can hit on you for cybersex or an offline affair. Every gathering place, online or offline, will contain good people, and people who may scam, use, or otherwise harm you. Practice those safety guidelines you've been hearing forever. Spend time in a public place with anyone you don't know well. Don't give out too much personal information to anyone you are not close to. Avoid being too open with people until you are confident you can trust them with the information.

You Have the Urge to "Treat Yourself" In a Big Way

After all you've been through, you deserve your favorite television series or movie collection on DVD or instant video.....or a new wardrobe....brand new furniture for the patio...twenty new books...a whole new toolbox....dinner out every night. Many scam victims lose money to the scammer and figure they might as well just blow everything that's left. Others were about to send money and feel like they have extra since they almost lost it. Some just feel they deserve a big treat after all they've been through.

Coping With This:

You do deserve a treat, but be careful. Sit down and go over your finances carefully to determine how much money you can spare at this time. If it is a much smaller amount than the treat you really want, try a smaller version of that treat. You could buy yourself one season of a television show on instant video or DVD, a single new outfit, book, or tool, or go out for one nice dinner. Never punish yourself for being scammed, as it was in no way your fault. Just don't give yourself the added stress of ruined or further ruined finances on top of dealing with the scam.

You Experience Moments of Confusion Over What is Real and What Was Part of the Scammer's Story

Things are going pretty well. In fact, just today you were making an online pin board about baseball, a sport you always used to follow closely before the scammer began taking up all your time. One of the items you added to your board reminded you of a chat you had with a friend about the city that hosts your favorite team. Who was that? Was it your coworker? The vendor that was at work yesterday? The girl who was building your porch? Or was a chat with the scammer.

Coping With This:

First, take comfort in the fact that this will fade away in time. You will gradually start talking to more and more people about the things that interest you, and the mention of specific subjects will remind you of that conversation instead of scammer conversations. You're thinking about the scammer's conversations right now because that's who you've been talking to almost exclusively for a period of time. Until it fades, it may help to have a small distraction technique. Pinpoint some behavior that has absolutely no connection to the scammer. It doesn't have to be anything dramatic. Drive or walk to a restaurant or store you never visited before and have a drink, snack, or meal if you can afford it. Take a walk around a block you normally don't visit. Put in an old movie you haven't thought to watch in years. Do a web search on the first city that comes to mind that has no connection to the scam. This doesn't have to take all day. Just eat, walk, watch, or read long enough to concentrate your mind on something with no link to the scam for a bit.

Friday, August 2, 2013

What Should You Do? (Part 1)

by Soraya Grant

The following five scenarios are fictional, but they represent situations that may occur. Any resemblance to any actual person is purely coincidental. As you read, imagine that you are in this situation and ask yourself: What should I do?

Situation 1: Your New Crush
You meet Sam online through a social networking site. The photos on his/her page show a very attractive man/woman. The two of you have been enjoying regular chats for a few weeks now, and you've got a crush on him/her. To your surprise, Sam tells you he/she has more than a crush on you. It's love. You admit you are interested in Sam, but add that you don't really want to make any promises and commitments beyond friendship before meeting offline a few times. Sam is deeply hurt. He/She talks about the connection the two of you have, repeats the line "I really love you" and says he/she wants you to be his/hers and wants to hear you say you are before his/her business trip to Ghana in two weeks.
What should you do?
End all communication with Sam, and use all the delete, block, and ignore functions on every social site you are on, including your email, to make sure Sam can't reach you again. This is a Nigerian/Ghanian scam. Professing love within a few weeks of meeting you online without ever meeting you offline, pressing for a commitment after this profession, and using repeated lines are red flags for all types of scams. The mention of Ghana is a sure sign you are communicating with a foreign scam ring.

Situation 2: School Supplies for Amber
You have been dating Taylor Smith for three months, though you only know him/her online and via the phone. He/she asked you for your "devotion" two weeks after you met in a chat room for "clean adult chat." You normally wouldn't make such a commitment, but you've done your research and know that Taylor really lives where he/she says and works where he/she says. You even found the phone number for the business, called there unexpectedly, and talked to Taylor. There really is a Taylor Smith right where he/she is supposed to be. As you chat, you notice that Taylor seems increasingly distraught over finances. You guys were talking about meeting in a city halfway between your homes for your first date, but Taylor doesn't seem prepared to make the trip. He/she speaks of increasingly severe health problems for him/her, and financial difficulties so severe that he/she cannot even afford school supplies for his/her niece Amber, who he/she is helping to raise. You feel obligated to send Taylor the money for medical care and school supplies.
What should you do?
Do NOT send this person any money or supplies. Leave the chatroom and delete, block, and ignore Taylor from all social sites you are on, including your email. You do not have a Nigerian/Ghanian or other foreign scammer, but you do have a scammer. Anybody, from anywhere in the world, who meets you online, starts a relationship with you, and then asks for or hints for money is a scammer. Taylor also displayed the "claims to fall in love with you early in the relationship" red flag.

Situation 3: I Know What You Did

You thought you were dating Kelly Jones, but it is now pretty clear that it was all a scam. Kelly told you he/she loved you after chatting for only a month, started dropping pretty strong hints for money after the second month, and always claims to be too "swamped" or too "broke" to meet you. He/she had recently begun telling you tales of extreme difficulties at work and suggesting that he/she might lose his/her job. You also started to notice that Kelly repeats the line "I don't lie to people" a lot and doesn't seem to live the life he/she claims to live. He/she is supposedly a lawyer, but when you asked a basic legal question, the answer seemed like a cut and pasted paragraph from another site. Now that you think about it, most of Kelly's courtroom stories sound an awful lot like plotlines from old "Law and Order" episodes. You deleted and blocked all communication from Kelly, but you feel like sending one last email letting him/her know exactly what you figured out
What should you do?
Resist the urge to tell a scammer why you know the relationship is a scam. They will not be afraid that everybody will see these warning signs and quit running scams. They will not be afraid of you telling others in the online community about the warning signs and quit running scams. All any scammer is going to do with this information is take notes so that they can craft a stronger scam next time. Nigerian/Ghanian scammers run their scams as a business. American money scammers run their scams as a second job. Revenge scammers put as much into their scams as you or I would put into a serious hobby. Never write to or call/text a scammer and tell them you know all about what they did. That only helps them scam somebody else. If you need to write it all out, use a private journal and write it all out for yourself.

Situation 4: Me and My Big Bed

You've been in bed for a week following the scam. There was the occasional shower and changing of pajamas, and you did stagger out to the kitchen to pick at the cartons of Chinese food you had delivered and demolish that bag of pretzels that was supposed to be your evening snack for the whole week, but the majority of the time was spent rolled up in your comforter, thinking about the relationship you thought you had, the scam, and the $1,000 you spent on a laptop to send to this person who wasn't even real. This morning you woke up with the urge to make coffee, shower, put on the clothes you normally wear during the day, and take a walk around the park where you used to meet your friends for lunch.
What should you do?
Make the coffee. Take the shower and get dressed. Go to the park. The urge to return to your normal routine and do things you liked doing before you ever met the scammer are signs of healing.

Situation 5: Carrie
You and your friend Carrie have both started going to the same church or social organization's meeting. During break time, Carrie confides in you that she has been the victim of an online romance scam. You call her afterward and hear the rest of the story. As you talk, you learn that Carrie bought two purple tee shirts, a pair of purple jeans, a purple purse, and some purple dishes because she thought she was going to marry a guy who loved purple and wanted to please him when they finally were together offline. Now that she knows it wasn't real, she wants to take all the items to the local thrift store, even though the dishes and jeans are brand new and the tee shirts and purse have only been worn/used once.
What should you do?
Support Carrie. Help her pack up all the purple stuff and take it to the thrift store. If she doesn't have enough dishes to make it through the day or enough clothes to make it through a week or two after getting rid of them, offer to go shopping for replacement items with her if she wants company. In most situations you would want to talk someone out of getting rid of and replacing perfectly good clothing, bags and household items, but after a scam it is best to get rid of as much scam related stuff as possible. Keeping items that were only purchased because of the scammer only keeps reminders of the relationship the victim thought they had around.