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Financial losses from romance scams add up

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A smartphone touch screen with the message "How much do you need??" The person is holding a credit card in the background with their other hand.

Many online scammers are running multiple cons at once, including romance scams. celiaosk via Getty Images

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Last year, around 70,000 people reported to the Federal Trade Commission that they’d been the victim of a romance scam.

Their losses totaled some $1.3 billion. And the actual total, most experts believe, is much higher than that.

Dina Temple-Raston is the host and executive producer of “Click Here,” a podcast about the world of cyber and intelligence that just put together a Valentine’s Day episode on this subject. She spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host Sabri Ben-Achour. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: We hear romance scams and we assume that means people using a fake romance to swindle somebody out of their money. But you went deeper than that. It turns out romance scammers are also using people to launder money, to launder their other cybercrime money. How does that work?

Dina Temple-Raston: Well, scammers have really stepped up their game. They’re now running multiple cons simultaneously. And they fold these romance scam victims into their other schemes. So, for example, they’ll ask their victims to open bank accounts for them. And it never occurs to the victims that they’re actually laundering money. And these aren’t crimes that authorities turn a blind eye to, even if you were on the receiving end of a scam.

Ben-Achour: You somehow got one of these scammers to talk to you on tape. What was he like? What can you tell us about him?

Temple-Raston: He wanted us to call him Tommy, and he’s in Nigeria, where a lot of these scammers are. His biography, in some ways, is not what you’d expect. For one thing, he’s a grad student working on a degree in politics in Nigeria. And he said he was running scams for about six months. A friend of his at school had put him in touch with some moneymen who were looking for people to run these scams. And he didn’t need any experience, they said, because they would give him all he needed. They actually gave him a sort of kit, a kind of manual to get him started.

Ben-Achour: Are these scammers making a lot of money?

Temple-Raston: Not really. He said he worked after his classes at school, and he made about $100 a month, which is a reasonable amount of money in Nigeria, but not as much as you would think. What ends up happening is that the money goes to moneymen, and they pay them a percentage of what he was able to convince people to send him. And the FTC said on average, the average victim was sending about $4,400 to these scammers, but Tommy said he was asking for much smaller amounts of money and searching for vulnerable people.

Tommy: I will also try to search for people looking for a sugar daddy or sugar mommy online. And once I see that they’re not paying, I will let them go.

Temple-Raston: This is sort of a version of the “Nigerian prince just needs some money to unlock an account.” And so you send them $100, and they promise to send you much more.

Ben-Achour: Did he give you any indication of how many people he scammed in the time he was doing this?

Temple-Raston: He wasn’t doing this long. He was only doing this for about six months. He said he got into it as a way to make a little extra money to help support his family while he was in school. And it’s pretty hard to find a regular job in Nigeria. He said he scammed about 20 people and that he never saw the money come in because it was sent to accounts that other people controlled, and then they would send him a commission later. And he said he stopped doing it because it just made him feel bad. The people he was cheating out of money weren’t these kind of high rollers. They were ordinary people who didn’t have much money either. And he said that after a while, that really weighed on his conscience.

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