V-Day warning: Anyone can suffer a moment of weakness over what they think is love — romance scams hit all-time high

St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about ‘Prince Charming.’

One woman sent this Prince Charming $90,000. Several bought wedding dresses, planning for the big event when their solider boyfriend returned from his overseas deployment.  He showered them with poetry, cards, flowers, stuffed animals, and chocolates.   They mailed him laptop computers, cell phones and tablets — things he needed for his “mission.”

It’s Valentine’s Day, which is some quarters is known as SAD — Singles Awareness Day.  If you or someone you know feels lonely today (and that’s everyone), you need to read this story.

Prince Charming — really Olayinka Ilumsa Sunmola, 33, of Lagos, Nigeria — was sentenced to 324 months behind bars last week.  He’d been terrorizing women for more than seven years. Authorities say he tricked hundreds of lonely women, many from the St. Louis area, into sending perhaps millions of dollars to Nigeria.   Worse yet, he stole their hearts and minds.

“The crime forced at least three women to file for bankruptcy,” federal authorities said. “Several more lost their jobs and their homes and were left in total financial ruin. One victim who testified at the trial lost over $90,000 to Sunmola. ‘Retirement should be a happy time,’ she wrote to the court. ‘Instead, I am stressed and broke and working part time jobs at $10 an hour to supplement my income.’ ”

It gets worse.

“Even many years later, a number of Sunmola’s victims remain withdrawn and untrusting, afraid to meet new people or to venture back out on the internet. For at least two women in Illinois, the abuse was also sexual, as Sunmola stole images of their naked bodies, used the images to extort money from them, and then distributed their explicit images on the internet for anyone to see,” authorities said.

“But then, his charm turned to bullying, name calling, extortion, unthinkable demands and threats. Thoughts of paradise turned into thoughts of hell and, for some, thoughts of suicide.” Judge Herndon called it ‘the most devastating crime one could ever imagine without laying hands or even eyes on another human being.’ ”

Sunmola was arrested in London when he foolishly tried to travel overseas, and extradited to the Unites States, so he won’t be hurting American women any more. But he leaves behind a large network of trained associates who worked with him. They might be scared off the crime now, but probably not.

Romance Scams — also known as Sweetheart Scams — continue to flourish.  Yes, I know you’ve heard about them before, but you need to hear about them again.  Loneliness drives people to do crazy things. There isn’t a soul on the planet who hasn’t suffered that fate.  Keep a close eye on older, widowed family members who can’t get around much.  And on yourself, too.  Anyone can be fragile. And the scams are getting more and more clever.

British authorities recently reported that romance scams there were at an all-time high.  Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine issued a warning about them this week. He says consumers who’ve complained claim they lost an average of over $21,000 to their sweetheart scammer, but some reported sending as much as $100,000 or more over the course of months or years.

And Fraud.org, run by the National Consumers League,  just reported that fraud victims who fall for a romance scam lose more money than any other kind of victim — in fact, they lose three times more than the average Internet scam victim.

Sweetheart scams follow pretty much the same pattern every time.  Sunmola pretended to be an American soldier stationed overseas, or an engineer working on a large government contract in South Africa. He cultivated romantic relationships with dozens of women across the country. He used photographs stolen from the hacked online accounts of real American men and researched facts about the American cities he pretended to be from.  And those teddy bears and flowers? Bought with stolen credit cards, of course.

Valentine’s Day can bring out both the best and the worst in people. If someone you love might be feeling lonely on Tuesday, send her or him a note.  Check in. Don’t be afraid to ask some intimate questions.  And if your loved one seems overly excited about a new Internet pen pal, go right ahead and ask if there’s been any requests to send money. If you sense resistance, just casually mention this story and talk about how awful romance scams are.

Don’t forget that even the most self-assured person you know could suffer a moment of weakness over what they think is love.    And that can happen on a holiday, or any day.

So reach out. The best way to combat fake love is with real love.   And Happy Valentine’s Day.

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About Bob Sullivan 990 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

2 Comments

  1. I got a call from a young man claiming to be my grandson. Since I have a young granddaughter, I knew immediately it was a fraud call. After all, what can she and the dog do and she is to young to call for bail. So I stayed on because I was curious. What I learned is that these guys are fantastic at what they do. They have an answer for everything. Well, in my case the guy was a crier and if you asked a question, he would cry and just sob. What I want to stress though is that the people doing the scams are very smart and prepared.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree…people don’t realize how convincing these folks can be. That’s why I always stress: If you think you could never fall for this kind of thing, you are wrong.

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