RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — It’s a crime that uses the anonymity of the internet to snag you and the scammer can pretend he’s anyone he wants.
As long as he stays hidden in cyberspace, you may never catch on until it’s too late for your emotional well-being and your bank account.
“I do it all from my room, there was no other person involved,” said a reformed romance scammer who goes by the name of Chris.
He took tens of thousands of dollars from his victims before guilt took over and made him quit.
He spoke exclusively to CBS 17 from his home in Nigeria, where he gave Consumer Investigator Steve Sbraccia inside details about the ways romance scammers work.
The FBI says North Carolina is one of the worst states for romance scams, ranking ninth out of 50.
Last year, 422 North Carolina victims lost more than $18 million to romance scammers—that’s about $43,000 per victim.
“Once you start sending the money, there’s no stopping,” said romance scam victim Rebecca D’Antonio, “There’s always something.”
D’Antonio lost over $100,000 to a scammer, went bankrupt and nearly lost her home.
The scammer would text her love poems to keep the fiction going that he was in love with her.
“These are seasoned, silver tongued narcissists,” she said. “They know what to say to disarm you.”
Sbraccia wanted to know if Chris had a certain formula when dealing with victims.
“I do have a certain way of doing it,” he told CBS 17. “It is like a formal step by step instruction. I have it on my phone.”
“I have a lot of aids and I just go on that,” he said. “I look it up and I know exactly what to say.”
In fact, the bad guys have a playbook.
The romance scamming investigative agency Social Catfish obtained a 23-page copy of the ones used by scammers like Chris.
It covers all the scenarios from how to approach a victim to ways to comfort them.
Scammers also steal photos off the internet based on certain criteria to appeal to victims.
“I look for guys that are physically fit, guys that use the gym most of the time,” said Chris. “I use especially military guys, Guys that are in the military.”
In Rebecca’s case, she got what turned out to be stolen internet photos of a handsome man who the scammer claimed was him and his 5-year-old son.
He used the child as a way to get money.
“For me, the situation was built like this. He was on the business trip with his son and his credit card he was using for his expenses stopped working,” said D’Antonio.
Through the next year, the money kept flowing to the scammer and so did the excuses.
He once he texted he was sick with malaria and he just couldn’t message her.
He’s apologized profusely for periodically being out of contact, all the while—continuing to tell Rebecca he had much love for her.
That kept her on an emotional roller coaster as he drained her bank account.
“I was going down the rabbit hole deep in depression, anxiety, PTSD at this point,” said D’Antonio.
For scammers, keeping their victims emotionally unsettled is part of the job.
It was that emotional damage to a victim that got Chris to quit after he stole $20,000 from a woman in her late 50’s.
“I made her life so miserable that I just couldn’t… you know– I quit,” he said. “I just called her on a video call and showed her my face and I said, ‘Hey Lisa this is me. I’m sorry for what I did to you.’ And she just started to cry. And I thought she was going to block me.”
Instead, the victim got Chris to reform, and he now works for Social Catfish, a company dedicated to preventing online scams through reverse search technology.
Meanwhile, Rebecca’s fantasy with her non-existent soulmate came to a crashing end when she told him on the phone, she was contemplating suicide.
“He says to me, and I’ll never forget that cold indifference, well, you have to do what you have to do,” said Rebecca. “For me, that was a stamp of finality. And I cut ties after that because what do you do after that.”
“With everything that I’ve learned since, they actually encouraged their victims to commit suicide because it buys permanent silence,” she said.
Despite being reformed, Chris says he still carries a sense of guilt.
“Those women I scammed were heartbroken. They all cried. They felt immense pain,” he said.
To avoid becoming a Romance scam victim:
- Conduct a reverse image photo search to confirm the person’s true identity
- Use search engines and social media to verify their identity and be cautious if there’s no information about them
- Do not send money or provide financial information to anyone you have not met in person