Digital rogues target women in love scams

Jennylyn, a 32-year-old resident of Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon met an American soldier through a social networking site and began a romantic relationship with him.

Soon enough she was notified by a cargo firm that the items sent by her boyfriend in Florida had arrived.

Her American boyfriend supposedly sent her an Apple laptop, iPad tablet, cellphone, a box of sea salt chocolates, a Louise Vuitton handbag, two bottles of Chanel perfume and a bouquet of roses.

“Madam your package arrived today. When goods are shipped, you are liable to pay any inbound duties and taxes which your local customs authority deems appropriate,” read a part of an email sent to her on June 21.

The cargo firm said she had to pay P18,300 to a personal account in a private bank to refund the firm for shouldering the duties and taxes.

“To ensure we can deliver your goods in shortest possible transit time, (the company) pays the customs authority on your behalf for duties and taxes that are due on your package. Once the duties and taxes are fully repaid your package will be delivered to you,” it added.

It was yet another example of an internet love scam, which has swindled victims of thousands of pesos for items supposedly sent to them by a supposed lover assuming a false identity.

The Bureau of Customs (BOC) in the Philippines has warned the public against the “internet love scam,” a scheme where a supposed romantic bond between a Filipina and a male foreigner that developed through chats on social media resulted in swindling.

Roswald Joseph Pague, deputy customs collector and BOC Region 10 chief of staff, said single or divorced foreigners, mostly Caucasians, are usually involved in the scam.

A few weeks into their relationship, the foreigner would promise to send his Filipina girlfriend gadgets and other imported items. She would receive a notice from a courier company informing her that her package had arrived and that she must pay a certain amount so she could receive it.

Pague reminded the public that duties and taxes should only be paid to the BOC through the government-owned bank, Land Bank of the Philippines.

“In the BOC, we don’t allow payment of duties in a private account. It shall be deposited to the account of the Bureau of Customs under Land Bank of the Philippines only, per existing (Commission on Audit) regulation,” he added.

Over the past nine months, 1,263 online love scams were reported to the Bureau of Customs (BOC)’s helpdesk BOC-CARES (Customer Assistance and Response Services).

Most of the online love scams were carried out through online dating sites, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, phone calls, text messages and emails, according to the BOC’s Enforcement and Security Service.

The scammers often prey on the victims by befriending them online and promising them a package containing gifts and a huge sum of money. The scammers will then send bogus receipts and tracking numbers of packages to unsuspecting victims.

Others were victimized via text messages or phone calls informing them that they had a package held by the BOC and they had to send money to get the package.

“They would usually use the name of the bureau and pose as BOC employees who are asking money to shoulder the ‘duties and taxes’ in exchange for the release of the package,” Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña said.

According to FBI data, 82 percent of romance scam victims are women and women over 50 are defrauded out of the most money.

Using fake profiles on online dating sites and social networks, including Facebook, scammers troll for the lonely and the vulnerable. They promise love and marriage and build what feels like a very real relationship to the victim.

Someone who has fallen for a scam before is a favored mark. Once victims send money, scammers put their names on a “sucker list,” Special Agent Beining said. Those names and identities are often sold to other criminals.

“We have seen victims become victimized again,” she said.

A Federal Trade Commission study published in 2013 found another telling commonality among all kinds of fraud victims: People who had experienced a negative life event in the previous 24 months ― lost a spouse, divorced, separated or lost a job ― were twice as likely to become the victim of a scam.

In her 2008 book, Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet, psychologist Monica Whitty explained that computer-mediated relationships “can be ‘hyperpersonal’ — more strong and intimate than physical relationships.” Participants can control how they present themselves, creating “idealized avatars” that elicit more trust and intimacy than their real-life, face-to-face selves.

“What happens is, you can see the written text and read it over and over again, and that makes it stronger,” wrote Whitty, who focuses on how cyber technologies affect human beings and now works at the University of Warwick in England.

Law enforcement officials say that victims are often embarrassed to let friends or family know they’re sending money to an online stranger. And should they wise up, they may be threatened and blackmailed by their faux lovers. As insurance that their victims will toe the line, scammers may gather compromising information ― commonly, videos of the victims masturbating at their request.

The scammer may even admit the crime to the victim, but then swear he has actually fallen in love with her. Those who believe the excuses and stay involved may enter into a new level of danger as the scammer begins to groom them to launder stolen money, deliver drugs or scam others. They may also threaten to release those “sex tapes” to gain their victims’ cooperation. More than one woman has wound up charged with crimes.

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