Anatomy of a romance scam as told by NBC10’s Tracy Davidson – NBC10 Philadelphia

Romance scammers steal money from consumers every day, to the tune of $1.1 billion in 2023 alone. Anyone can be a target, regardless of their background, including NBC10’s own Tracy Davidson. After one such scammer tried to target her, Tracy decided to share her interaction to expose their methods and help protect others from scams. She shares her story below:

I honestly didn’t think anything of it when “James Williams” contacted me on social media in late February asking, “Can I have a conversation with you?”

I followed him back and sent him a direct message.

“How can I help you?” I have asked.

“I just want to be friends with you,” he replied. “You look so beautiful and respectable that words simply cannot express how beautiful you are.”

Flattering. But wow, red flag there. But I played along, just to see where this would take us. I asked the Secret Service to join in too.

“Romance scams are quite common,” Kristie Sandefur, a research analyst with the Secret Service in Philadelphia, told NBC10.

Sandefur said the daily interactions that followed were classic romance scams.

James asked me where I live. He said he was from Seattle but was “currently working in Syria as a military orthopedic surgeon for the United Nations.”

James said he had one son, Jack. He sent me a photo of a man and a teenager wearing sunglasses.

“This is all part of the phase where they gain your trust,” says Sandefur. ‘They try to include you in their circle. Make yourself part of their family.”

Two weeks after our ‘relationship’ started, James alleged something against me.

“My feelings for you grow stronger every day,” he wrote. “I want to talk to you in person and feel you close to me.”

“This is going exactly as we would expect,” Sandefur said.

Sandefur said these romance scams are all scripted and often target people who are lonely.

“One thing you have to be aware of is that these are these people’s full-time jobs,” Sandefur said. “This is all they do. You know what I mean? They are essentially chained to a desk all day. They get multiple phones. They are given multiple aliases and identities and they have to contact a hundred Americans in one day.”

James told me he had exceeded his vacation limit.

“The only way I can leave the camp now and come to you is if you help me and request my vacation,” he wrote.

He told me that we had to apply to the United Nations.

“I think he was trying to add some legitimacy by using the United Nations,” Sandefur said. “It is clearly not a member of the United Nations.”

James gave me an email address and told me what to say.

“The UN vacation department is going to charge you some money,” he wrote.

Sandefur said the United Nations website has a fraud alert to protect people from scammers like James.

I emailed the address James gave me and received a response stating that they had received my email requesting the vacation certificate. The response also cited a so-called law stating that I had to pay $14,000 in US dollars. The response stated that they could accept payment via bitcoin, bank-to-bank deposit, or bank deposit.

“Very typical in non-English speaking countries, you know, pretty sure that person is abroad,” Sandefur said. “And then all the grammatical errors. The domain from which the email was sent is not a United Nations domain.”

I asked where to send the money and was given the bank account information of a woman in Canon City, Colorado.

“That person is probably a money mule,” Sandefur said. “Money mules are people who essentially recruit scammers to move money for them.”

We called that woman’s numbers. Two of these numbers have been closed. After leaving a message, we didn’t hear back from the third number.

I never sent any money and I continued to receive messages from James daily. But now I just ignore them. Just like you should from the very beginning.

The FTC also shared additional advice on how to protect yourself from romance scams.

Never send money, cryptocurrency, gift cards, wire transfers, or wire transfers to someone you have never met in person. Be suspicious of excuses as to why meeting in real life is impossible. Perform a reverse search for shared photos. If you see that the photos belonging to a different name or the details do not match, you are dealing with a scammer.