Shipment of trouble

What seemed to be a promising online romance ensnares a Parkville woman in international fraud

August 11, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun reporter

The Internet love interest came off as a single dad from Odenton with a tender side. He said he liked to paint and travel. He e-mailed a supposed picture of himself smiling and standing on a sailboat on a picturesque pond.

From her small Parkville condominium, Shirley Singer was smitten. The dental assistant didn't realize that she was destined to become the latest victim of a devious Internet scheme that preys on the lonely looking for love online.

After connecting with Singer on a dating Web site this summer, the mystery romancer made a seemingly innocent request: Would she accept deliveries for him at her condo while he tended to a hospitalized brother in Africa?

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Aug. 11 editions of The Sun about a Catonsville woman being unwittingly drawn into an apparent Internet fraud scheme contained an incorrect name for an FBI spokeswoman. The spokeswoman is Cathy Milhoan.
The Sun regrets the error.

Trusting him after weeks of chatting online, Singer agreed to help out. Within days, thousands of dollars in merchandise arrived at Singer's home: DVDs, designer jeans, cell phones, Armani watches, an iPod Nano.

Then came $1,144 in stamps and a request to send the various boxes to Ghana, where, he told her, the merchandise would be sold in a store that he and his brother were opening.

Her suspicion finally aroused, Singer called Baltimore County police, who determined that at least some of the merchandise was bought with stolen credit cards. Authorities think that Singer was drawn into an Internet "reshipping" scheme.

County police are investigating and do not think that Singer knowingly participated in the scheme, said Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman.

"He gave me some sob story," Singer said, referring to the man's claim that he was a recently divorced father raising four children on his own. "I got suckered in, hook, line and sinker."

While Internet schemes carried out overseas in Africa and Europe are nothing new, con artists are increasingly using online dating sites to recruit unwitting accomplices, said Cathy Sloan, an FBI spokeswoman.

Not long ago, the prevalent scheme on the Internet involved luring people into fake business ventures. But the recent growth of dating Web sites such as Singles.net and Match.com has given criminals another way to carry out their schemes, Sloan said.

"These scammers have to go with whatever [is] the flavor of the month," she said.

The FBI does not keep statistics on schemes involving online dating sites. But Romancescam.org has 10,600 members who claim to be victims, said Barbara Sluppick, who started the site with a friend two years ago. In a survey by the site, 760 members reported losing more than $6 million in various schemes, she said.

People who pay up to $49.95 to join the dating sites think they will be protected from frauds, Sluppick said, but the reality is that predators spend months on the sites cultivating romantic relationships.

"They listen to every single thing the person says to them," Sluppick said. "If the person is looking for a husband or a wife and they want to have 10 kids, then that's what the scammer's going to offer them. They build an actual dream around it ... to the point where it becomes a reality for the victim."

In one common scheme, a criminal might use stolen credit cards to buy goods and then ask the person on the dating site to accept deliveries and ship them out of the country.

The accomplice is needed because many U.S. companies have policies against mailing items to certain countries known for lax law enforcement and government corruption, officials said.

"They steal credit cards and have the goods mailed to addresses that don't arouse much suspicion," said Avivah Litan, security research analyst for the security firm Gartner Inc.

In another scheme, the criminal persuades the victim to cash checks and send the money to another country; it takes weeks for the banks to discover that the checks are bad.

Authorities are often limited in their ability to crack down on international fraud because some countries do not cooperate with U.S. investigators, and traveling overseas to track down criminals can be costly, experts say.

Many of the people caught up in the schemes are like Singer, who for weeks had personal conversations with a man she believed was a potential love interest.

Singer, who is divorced, said she enjoys meeting people online, and in late June, a man responded to her profile on Singles.net. He immediately charmed her with a story about how he had recently divorced his wife and was raising four children on his own, she said.

He told her he and his brother were opening a private resort on the Gold Coast in Africa. He said his brother had come down with pneumonia, and he was going to visit him in the hospital and run the resort.

"Would you accept some packages for me, and then I will send you the postage to mail it?" she recalled him asking her.

She asked why his sons in Odenton could not accept the packages, and he replied that he was worried that they would open the packages and use the goods, she said.

So she agreed to help out.

"The next day, I get roses, candy and a stuffed animal," Singer said. The package also came with a love letter from the man.

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