By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 7/28/2005 12:00:58 PM ET 2005-07-28T16:00:58

Richie's picture showed a jolly, bearded man curled up on a couch with a cat rubbing his face. "Loving, caring and hardworking," the online dating profile said.

When Theresa Smalley received a note from Richie last January asking if she wanted to chat, she was flattered. He seemed cute. The two began exchanging e-mails, friendly at first, but quickly swelling in intensity and passion. By Valentine's Day, Smalley received a box of chocolate candy, a teddy bear, and a helium balloon that said "I love you." Smalley, 46, was hooked, even though she had never met him.

Richie said he was from Milford, Mass., but that he was out of the country on a big construction job. He was helping build a stadium in Nigeria, he said. As soon as he returned, he promised, he'd come visit Smalley in Ohio. He couldn't wait, and neither could she.

The spirited e-mail romance hummed along for another two months before there was a problem. Richie said his boss paid him in postal money orders, and he was having trouble cashing them. Could Theresa do a small favor for him? Could she cash the money order for him, then wire the money to him in Nigeria? Smalley agreed, and over the next two weeks, she cashed two $900 money orders and sent along the funds. Then, Richie was ready to leave the country, but needed money to deal with a visa problem. She cashed another money order.

Then, Smalley's bank called her. Something was wrong.

"I had to call a special number at the bank. Even up until that point I still believed him. I had no qualms whatsoever cashing (the money orders)," Smalley said. Even after the bank told her the money orders had been altered — they were purchased for $20, but then "washed" and doctored to read $900 — she still held out hope.  But a friend pointed her to an Internet site devoted to Nigerian scams, and suddenly, Smalley's world crashed down around her.

'My whole world had fallen apart'
"The bank told me I was responsible for that money. I had to pay them $2,700, which was everything I had," she said. "I was devastated. I felt like my whole world had fallen apart.

Video: Seductive scams Smalley shared her version of events with MSNBC.com in the hopes that others might not fall for the same trickery.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever known that this is all a part of an elaborate online scam. He spent four months gaining my trust and he did it."

So-called Nigerian scams, where victims are ultimately tricked into sending money to the African country using some irreversible method like a wire transfer, are common. The Secret Service and other U.S. agencies have issued warnings on the scams, also known as "419" or "advance-fee" frauds. But the seductive flavor of this type of the scam — known to some as "sweetheart scams" — and the incredible patience shown by the scammer reveal just how far con artists will go to trick their marks. 

Ryan W. of Washington state, who asked that his last name be withheld, says he sent $15,200 to a similarly seductive scammer. And he wasn't even using an online dating service. Ryan was approached while hanging out in a chat room devoted to Grateful Dead fans. His seducer also claimed to be an American out of the country getting paid via money order, and also ultimately asked him to cash them. Five weeks later, when the bank came calling, all $11,000 in Ryan's bank account — most of it from a student loan earmarked for next semester's tuition — was frozen by his bank.

"Typically people go on the Net to get dates. I was just on there trading music," he said. "The thing that duped me was the whole music issue. She seemed to be into the music I was into."

Flowers bought with stolen credit cards
Nigerian-based con artists seem to have seized on sweetheart scams of late, said Dale Miskell, supervisory special agent in charge of an FBI cybercrime squad in Birmingham, Ala. Scam artists post ads to online dating sites and lurk in chat rooms with names like "40 and single," or "Recently dumped." Often, they reach out to a lonely soul with flowers or candy, purchased with a stolen credit card.

"A little gift of flowers or candy is a good aphrodisiac," said Miskell. "The next thing you know, they are in love. I can't tell you the number of women who have fallen for this."

Eventually, the con artists convince their soulmates to do them a big favor — help transfer funds out of the bank.

There have been so many victims that they are starting to find each other online. A new Yahoo group, "RomanceScams," was founded last month by Smalley and Barb Sluppick, who said she almost fell for a similar scam earlier this year. Among the hundreds of messages posted to the group are photographs of alleged scammers, links to potentially fraudulent online dating ads, and copies of come-on e-mails. The group is trying to publicize the problem to limit the damage.

"How many people are out there thinking they found the love of their life and they have no clue what's happening?" Sluppick said. "The first thing most people say to me when they contact me is, 'I can't believe I was so stupid.' "

Sweetheart scams appear to be on the rise, said Julie Ferguson, executive director of the Merchant Risk Council, which tracks scams for online retailers.

"I am definitely getting more calls on this. I used to get one every three months. Now, I get one every couple of weeks or so because it's the easiest way to get somebody hooked," Ferguson said. "The stories are so-gut-wrenching sad."

Some scammers seem to deliberately target groups set up for Christian singles, she said, where people may be less likely to be suspicious. "When you are meeting someone else on a Christian site, you think you are safe."

No dating site is immune from scams, said Jason Tarlowe, who operates MatchDoctor.com, where Smalley met Richie. "This hurts our business. We don't want this," Tarlowe said. "We're trying to do everything possible ... We don't want people to be taken in."

But they are, said Donna Gregory, supervisory internet crime specialist at the FBI's Internet Fraud Complaint Center. She said the con artists are relentless.

"We've even seen them take as long as a year (to seduce a mark)," Gregory said. Con artists will hunt for people's weaknesses, find out what they care about -- such as Grateful Dead music -- and then go in for the kill.

Sometimes, the online suitors don't even ask before sending money orders. They just send them, then guilt their targets into forwarding on the cash, Gregory said. In other cases, the con artists aren't after money -- they are after shipping help. They ask their correspondents to "re-ship" items to locations in Nigeria. The goods are often purchased with stolen credit cards, but the con artists have trouble getting them delivered out of the country, because many U.S. merchants are now wary of shipping to Nigeria. So the criminals need a middle-man.

"They say, 'Oh, once you have them, why not just send them? People say, 'I've got these packages and I don't know why,'" Gregory said.

Sluppick said one confused victim in her Yahoo support group currently has about $50,000 in merchandise that's been sent to her home, and she doesn't know what to do with it. 

The Merchant Risk Council's Ferguson said victims can always contact her agency for help returning merchandise to the retailers.

'Keep your money to yourself'
But there is no returning money to consumers who have wired funds overseas, hoping to cement a love bond. Smalley said other would-be victims need to know about the perils of online matchmaking, and they need to listen to the little voices of hesitation and concern inside that she failed to heed.

"So much came back to me after all of this was done," she said.  "I sat there thinking about everything. But these guys are professionals. They have the time. They have the patience."

Rhoda Cook has for years operated a Web site named straightshooter.net which maintains a database of sweetheart con artists. She's seen many varieties of romance scams, online and off. There's nothing new about charming men and women swindling would-be lovers, she said.

"When they invented the car, the con artist could drive to the next county. Now they can get on the Internet and go across the world," Cook said.  "When you meet someone and you really want someone you just want to believe them."

Her advice to daters is the same, online or off:

"Enjoy the relationship, but keep your money to yourself," she said. "That way, if it goes wrong, all you're going to lose is your heart."

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