Fake Online Girlfriend Scams Illinois Man for $200K

In the biggest "advance fee fraud" the town has ever seen, man wires $ for love.

March 3, 2011 — -- An Illinois man who thought he was in a long-distance relationship with a woman for two-and-a-half years actually was in the process of being ripped off for $200,000 in an online scam, police said.

The 48-year old man thought he was assisting a girlfriend he met on a social network website when he wired money to bank accounts in Portland, Ore., Nigeria, Malaysia and England, said police in Naperville, Ill.

"He believed she had several things going where she needed money," said Naperville Police Sgt. Gregg Bell, adding that it was against police policy to release the victim's name.

The victim transferred $15,000 to $20,000 early in the relationship with the girlfriend that he never met in person because she said she was ill in Nigeria and needed to pay for a doctor, Bell said. Other transactions involved smaller amounts, such as $5,000 and $6,800.

The victim contacted the police on Feb. 23, when the girlfriend told him she was kidnapped in London, Bell said, adding that what the victim believed was a picture of the girlfriend actually was a sample license photo from Florida.

"It had the earmarkings of another scam where people take advantage of people being somewhat naive in the ways of the world," Bell said.

Although Bell has seem similar scams, he had not seen a case involving as much as $200,000 in his 23 years with the Naperville police.

John Everett of the National White Collar Crime Center said such a crime is known as "advance fee fraud," in which a scammer solicits money from a victim, claiming to provide an incentive such as more money.

"In order to get the money, the person will give a handsome reward or other promise," Everett said. "In this case, it was love."

There were 23,089 advance fee fraud complaints filed last year, according to the Internet Complaint Crime Center (IC3), a collaboration between the FBI and National White Collar Crime Center. That was 7.6 percent of the total 303,809 complaints filed with IC3.

FBI Warns Against Money and Emotions

Even in an apparently trusting relationship, people should practice caution with financial solicitations, said Jenny Shearer, a spokeswoman for the FBI.

"If requests are made to wire money, even when your heart is involved you should step back and ask if that's right," Shearer said. "That's usually an element of a scam activity. Your judgment may be clouded by feelings you're developing for someone."

If you receive an appeal that sounds like a "sob story," Shearer added, you should be suspicious.

Solving the crime and bringing justice can be difficult because of the complicated nature of cyber crimes, which can happen from anywhere, Shearer said. There is FBI enforcement around the world, but there may not be an overseas nexus to catch every crime.

"Nigeria can be a hub, unfortunately, for this kind of scam," said Shearer. "As I understand it, the country has good wireless connectivity. And anyone can purport to be who they say they are on the Internet. It's hard to verify."

Shearer recalled a larger scam involving an elderly woman who lost more than $400,000 when she received a solicitation to send money to claim lottery ticket winnings.

ABC News has reported on other scams involving advanced fee frauds.

Shearer said it was wise that the man in Naperville contacted the police.

"If he was duped into sending this much money, maybe others will as well," Shearer said. "There may be a related organization."

Victims of cyber crimes should contact their local FBI office and file a complaint at IC3.gov, Shearer and Everett said.

Here are IC3's prevention tips:

If the "opportunity" appears too good to be true, it probably is.

Do not reply to e-mails asking for personal banking information.

Be wary of individuals representing themselves as foreign government officials.

Be cautious when dealing with individuals outside of your own country.

Beware when asked to assist in placing large sums of money in overseas bank accounts.

Do not believe the promise of large sums of money for your cooperation.

Guard your account information carefully.

Be cautious when additional fees are requested to further the transaction.