A new report about a Nigeria-based cybercrime ring describes in detail how lonely targets are emotionally preyed upon and in some cases bilked of their life savings through romance scams.

Citing data from the Better Business Bureau, Agari Cyber Intelligence Division (ACID) reports such scams have led to personal losses of nearly $1 billion in the U.S. and Canada since 2015. ACID believes this particular Nigerian criminal organization, dubbed “Scarlet Widow” 
has been in operation since at least 2015.

“Over the past four years, the group has continuously evolved their methods, testing new types of fraud and moving to more lucrative scams as their tactics evolve,” the report states.

The ACID report focused on fictitious personas known as “Captain Micheal” and “Laura Cahill” whose fake profiles are posted on a wide range of dating sites, duping vulnerable members of the opposite sex into thinking that they finally have found real love.

“They string their victims along for months or even years, always finding a new reason to request money, always finding an excuse for being unable to meet in person,” ACID says. Typical targets are farmers, the elderly, the disabled, and divorced.

The report’s three case studies depict the victims as lonely and presumably heterosexual. However, SC interviewed an African-American, single gay male who lives in New York and was the victim of a similar scam. Via Western Union, he transmitted a total of $3,000 over the course of 10 months between October 2017 and August 2018 to his would-be lover and a fake Ethiopian government intermediary for a plane ticket, visa, clothes and a mobile phone.

The New Yorker, who’s in his early 60s, met the African grifter over Facebook, not an online dating service. The con man called himself “Nicholas Edwards,” which turned out to be a phony name. The victim went on to file a complaint with Facebook.

Edwards eventually admitted the scheme to his victims two days after they were supposed meet in the U.S. at an airport. The victim later found Edwards under a different name, and again reported him to
Facebook.

“Once I realized I was scammed, I called the Ethiopian embassy in New York, which told me I ‘should feel lucky’ because people have been taken for far more,” says the New Yorker, who requested to not reveal his real identity to avoid further embarrassment.

Indeed, Agari says the fictitious Laura Cahill persona managed to “con more than $50,000” from a recently divorced Texas man.

The New York man, who sacrificed his Social Security money and couldn’t pay his cable or electric bills for several months, said he was told by the Ethiopian embassy that they get these calls “100 times a day.” What really hurt the victim was that the perpetrator was doing the same thing to others at the same time — another admission by the
scammer.

ACID will release a second report in late February 2019, revealing more about Scarlet Widow’s members and structure, its transition to business email compromise attacks, and how the group launders its fraudulent proceeds.

“Dating scams are particularly dangerous and effective because of the numerous data breaches on dating websites that have occurred over the last couple of years,” commented Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of web security company High-Tech Bridge. On St. Valentine’s Day, click-rates for a well-prepared spear-phishing campaign may be as high as 100 percent, Kolochenko said, adding that cybercriminals are adept at exploiting human psychology, for instance by impersonating a victim’s ex-lovers or close acquaintances.