Is Richard Steve in the US Army

War campaign against "Romance Scam" on the Internet : When victims of love scammers strike back

Raymond Paul wrote to her on Facebook, that was in the summer of 2018. Paul said he was carried away by her blue-gray eyes, in general she looked like a wonderful person. Paul also said he was having a hard time, his wife had died of breast cancer three years earlier. But slowly he realizes that life must go on. He is ready to fall in love again.

When Ruth Brander reads this, at home on her computer, in the study of her row house in the Berlin area, she doesn't want to answer at first. Brander is married. Then she does it anyway. It just hasn't happened for a long time that someone compliments her so many times. And really care about them. As a human.

According to his profile photo, Raymond Paul is a handsome man in his 50s, a little younger than Brander. Strong eyebrows, gray temples, designer glasses. Slightly dreamy look. Paul writes that he is an orthopedist in the service of the US Army, actually stationed in a barracks near Stuttgart. However, he is currently on a special mission in Kabul.

The two exchange long emails, mostly in the evening, Raymond Paul uses a translation program. In a message he describes himself as a "simple man, honest, loving, respectful, loyal". Brander is happy when Paul announces that he will be returning to Germany soon and that he will definitely want to get to know her. First with a glass of wine, just talk, don't rush into anything. Ruth Brander thinks: That's exactly how I want it.

Two weeks before his flight to Germany, he sends Ruth Brander an email. He had just had a briefing that they wanted to send him to the middle of the Taliban area, his life was in danger. But there is a way out: he plans to take early retirement and then travel to her as soon as possible. To do this, however, he needs a medical certificate that certifies that he is suffering from psychological stress. The letter costs 1350 euros. He has no access to his own account in Kabul. But if Brander advances the amount, he'll pay everything back as soon as he's with her in Germany. Promised.

A US Army guarantee statement

Ruth Brander transfers the money to an Italian account, soon she actually receives the desired certificate by email, she forwards it directly to Raymond Paul. He's very relieved. Nothing stands in the way of his flight to Germany, he writes. Only the 8,500 euros that he still had to pay to the US Army so that they formally initiate his retirement. Can Ruth Brander help out one last time? There is no risk for them, Paul writes. To prove this, he attaches an official guarantee statement from the US Army to his email, which states: “The United States government gives you the assurance that everything you do for spend your friend's early retirement is sent back to you. "

Brander becomes suspicious, confides in an acquaintance. He sends her a link to a website from which Ruth Brander will learn two things. First, that she was betrayed like many others. Second, that there are ways to fight back.

There is no orthopedic surgeon named Raymond Paul. There is also no doctor who issues certificates. The US Army's guarantee statement is forged. Only the money that Ruth Brander transferred is real.

The forum in which Brander learns all of this is called, in German for example: love fraud bait. It was founded by Helga Grotheer, she is the only one willing to give her real name. The shame of those affected, she says, is enormous. Therefore, many do not even report the deeds. Some of the women who network here have lost significantly more money than Ruth Brander. Some got into debt, burdened their homes. One victim lost 350,000 euros. And even though this woman knows that her chat partner is a scam, she still hopes that at some point they will get to know each other personally. Helga Grotheer says: "To outsiders, what those affected sound like crazy."

The scammers contact their victims on dating sites, including Facebook and, increasingly, on Instagram. They try it in forums of Christian groups to get to know each other and on websites where cooking tips are exchanged. Most of the time, they quickly ask to move the conversation to Whatsapp or Google Hangout.

The fraudsters copy the photos of the handsome men from the online profiles of real, unsuspecting people. The man Ruth Brander fell in love with is also known on the forum as Rafael Johnson, Charles Josh-Howard, Richard Hubert and Doctor Dennis Alfred. In truth, the picture shows a French businessman.

The process always follows the same pattern. First the fraudsters affirm their love, shower their victims with compliments, and fantasize about a common future. In order to build trust, they pretend to be concerned about the other person and often ask whether and what they have eaten today. After a few weeks, the first money requests come - here the stories vary greatly, says Grotheer. Usually the man pretends to have got into an emergency through no fault of his own.

Sometimes he is robbed on a trip, sometimes a fantasy authority demands a surprising back tax payment. Or he supposedly works for the United Nations and has to pay a high fee in order to get a few days off there and travel to Germany. There are several reasons why many scammers claim they are soldiers, says Grotheer: It makes their stay abroad plausible and at the same time explains why the men only want to make phone calls and write emails, never skype. Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed in the military exclusion zone.

“Although there are now,” says Grotheer, “already scammers who engage in webcam conversations.” And then play videos of strange men and speak halfway in sync: “If lip movement and voice don't go together, they say they do Transmission is bad. "

She noticed the fraud by accident

Helga Grotheer fell for a scammer herself, that was ten years ago. Steve reportedly lived in London and was extremely in love and extremely caring. You have written long, heartfelt emails. Grotheer noticed by chance that something was wrong here. When she wanted to write Steve a new message one evening, she accidentally copied his email address not into the address field of her email program, but into the browser line above. Google then spat out heaps of websites on which cheated women warned of exactly this address and this alleged Steve.

The forum is intended to network and educate those affected and to warn potential victims of the scam. But it is also a form of defensiveness, even self-empowerment.

“Of course it's also about revenge,” says Helga Grotheer. “In any case, for satisfaction.” The women who have decided to hunt down their deceivers, to make victims of the perpetrators, call themselves devils. In reference to the film "The Devil's Club", in which Diane Keaton and Bette Midler drive their lying husbands to ruin.

First, the forum members try to find out where the stolen photos come from. To do this, they don't use the reverse search for images on Google, says Grotheer. It is not effective, it is currently getting the best results from the Russian search platform

"For some women it is enough to hold off their perpetrators, to let them fidget in the hope that money will soon flow." And to constantly invent new excuses why the transfer did not work out again. That occupies the fraudsters, says Grotheer, and perhaps prevents them from looking for new, unsuspecting victims during this time.

Most of the women on the forum want more. They try to get as much information as possible about the true identity of their counterpart. The IP addresses of the mails, telephone numbers, account connections help here. If several transfer attempts seem to have failed, in the best case scenario the perpetrators suggest sending an acquaintance over to receive the money in person. Two months ago, the devils invited the last person who dared to come to Cologne in a café on the forecourt of the main station. A woman from Saarland had already transferred 65,000 euros to her fraudster, but was puzzled when the man wanted another 110,000. To hand it over, he sent a supposed acquaintance who introduced himself as Professor Hugo Greham. The police arrested him. Helga Grotheer says the perpetrator was very surprised and made no move to flee. It turned out that he already has a criminal record for money laundering. Now he is facing charges of fraud. "It's a little bit of justice, after all."

The backers are often in Nigeria, Ghana or the Ivory Coast. Not all of them ask for money transfers, they have found other tricks. For example, ordering a smartphone and asking the victim to pick it up at their front door and then forward it to them. The woman does not know that by signing the device when she accepts the device, she is automatically entering into a cell phone contract. It will cost them several thousand euros.

The hunt for an alleged building contractor

Ruth Brander, who paid 1,350 euros for a non-existent certificate for a non-existent US doctor, never found out who was really behind the name Raymond Paul. For this she has joined the devils and tried to convict other perpetrators. She runs various fake profiles herself, which are intended to attract scammers. In May of this year a man called himself Robert S. wrote to her. Allegedly a global construction company specializing in the construction of oil platforms and bridges. But now he is looking for a partner for life. S. enthused: “You ignite my entire ability to think. I'm ready to look, and who knows, the rose in my heart could be yours. ”He sent pictures of himself in front of hotel pools and airport lobbies. He shared details from his life, wrote about his interests: “My favorite colors are green, blue and black, and my favorite food is seafood.” And he confessed to being very inexperienced: “This is my first time on a dating site and you are the first woman I want to communicate with. "

After a few days he swore his eternal love ("Let me be your man, I will engrave you with love and care"). He promised a wedding soon. She agreed, but demanded that he first have to email the following documents from himself: "Birth certificate, certificate of unmarried status, proof of income, registration certificate, certificate of marital status (all translated)". S. began to forge the desired documents. Keeping the perpetrators busy with nonsensical tasks is part of the plan for revenge. Then Robert S. wrote of a box with US $ 107 million that he wanted to send to Brander by courier. For bureaucratic reasons, however, she first had to transfer thousands of dollars in customs clearance to an unknown bank account. Experienced devils from the forum took over the communication with the perpetrator, laid wrong tracks, made him fidget. In the end, S. wanted to send a courier to collect the money. The police were waiting for him.

More than 30 arrests in Germany alone can be traced back to the research carried out by Helga Grotheer and her colleagues. There are also several in Nigeria. Because word got around the world that Internet fraudsters often operate from the West African country and this damages Nigeria's reputation, the local police have deployed a special unit to fight scammers.

Most of the fraudsters acted rather clumsily linguistically, says Helga Grotheer. Decorated their declarations of love with the most kitschy metaphors, their demands for money often looked clumsy. “And although everything speaks against the fact that this love is true, the victims hope to the last.” Because, at least in theory, there is a minimal chance that in this one case everything is completely different for once, the many indications that speak for fraud , are exceptionally a stupid chain of coincidences.

Like the older woman who had also turned to the forum because she was afraid she had fallen for a scammer. He was middle-aged, on the road a lot, very handsome, with a child. The man promised to visit her, but then he was allegedly the victim of a robbery, all the money spoiled, whether she could help him?

"Open your eyes. It's clear what's going on here, ”Helga Grotheer told her. The woman clung to her hope, transferred the money. And got in touch with Helga Grotheer a few weeks later. “You said that the guy doesn't even exist. Well, now he's sitting next to me on the terrace. "

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