Fake documentation is easy to create, and romance scammers know it. I recently received the following email from a reader in Denmark whom we’ll call “Grete”:
In december 2015 i got to know an engineer from New Jersey. He claimed he was from New Jersey.
He got a contract from Shell. The job was in Ukraine.
We spoke on the phone every day.
He made me believe I was the one.
I trusted him.
When he arrived in Ukraine, his problems started.
He said that his credit card didn’t work.
His bank accountant send me a collateral letter.
I sent the letter to my bank.
They thought it was an original.
Unfortunately it wasn’t.
I have given him 17.500$
I contacted FBI fraud center and sent them a complaint. I have never heard from them.
I contacted an attorney in New Jersey. I never heard from them either.
What do I do now?
I really hope you can help me.
In Grete’s email, I saw the trademark behavior of a scam. The con man groomed Grete, convincing her of his love. He then created an emergency — he was in a different country, and his credit card wouldn’t work. He needed her help.
I asked Grete if she was certain of the man’s identity. Here is her reply:
Thank you for your reply.
I haven’t seen him for real.
He worked for a company Rayyan Petroleum in New Jersey.
He was on their website with his picture.
I also talked to the manger and their attorney of the company.
I have the signed collateral letter from his bank.
She sent me the documents, and I could see that Grete had been caught up in a sophisticated scam, with fake documentation and multiple participants. Unfortunately, she is unlikely to get her money back.
Grete has given her permission to write about her story, so that you can learn from her sad experience.
Tips for avoiding online romance scams
First of all, here are five tips for avoiding online romance scams.
- Do not hook up with someone from another country.
- Search the person’s name in Google, Facebook, Linkedin.
- When the person sends you a photo, do a reverse image search.
- Investigate the person’s business information.
- Beware of fake documentation.
We’ll examine each of the individually, to see what they turn up in this case
1 . Do not hook up with someone from another country
I believe that any Internet dating is dangerous. Yes, sometimes you can meet a potential partner online — I personally know people who have met online, married, and are living together happily.
The key is to use online dating simply as an introduction service for meeting people who live in your geographic area. If you hook up with someone who does not live within easy driving distance — under two hours away — then you are begging for trouble.
Grete is in Denmark. The scammer she met, “Thomas Adrian Sparks,” claimed to be from New Jersey, in the United States, although my guess is that he’s from Nigeria. In this international hook-up, Grete is at a severe disadvantage.
First of all, English is not Grete’s first language. Although her English is excellent, if at times she didn’t understand what Sparks said to her, she may have attributed it to language differences — not that he was intentionally trying to confuse her, which he was.
Secondly, she doesn’t know anything about New Jersey. I am from New Jersey, and I could look at the “proof” that Sparks sent and instantly see problems. I’ll explain further later.
The bottom line is, although it may feel exciting and exotic to connect with someone from another country, it will be very difficult to verify their story.
2. Search the person’s name in Google, Facebook, Linkedin
The scammer used the name “Thomas Adrian Sparks.” If you plug this name into Google, Facebook and LinkedIn you get … nothing.
Now, this doesn’t automatically make the person a scammer. However, it should create some doubt. These days, almost everyone has some kind of an Internet presence. If there is no Internet trail that backs up what your prospective partner is telling you — well, that means you should ask more questions.
Sparks sent Grete a link to his LinkedIn profile — except it was not a personal profile, it listed Rayyan Petroleum.
Rayyan Petroleum Company
This is suspicious — LinkedIn is for people to post their professional profiles, not for companies.
3. Reverse image search
Sparks sent Grete a photo of himself. She finally did search the image, and discovered that he was not Thomas Adrian Sparks of New Jersey, but Lucas Gil, a male model from Brazil.
So how do you do a reverse image search? It’s easy:
- Go to Google Images
- Click the camera icon — this takes you to “search by image.”
- Upload the image. Google instantly offers you a “best guess” of who is in the picture.
In this case, one of the search results is Lucas Gil’s Pinterest page. And there it is — the picture that the scammer sent to Grete.
Google also gives you the opportunity to see where else the image appears on the Internet. It’s worth checking this out — you may find people saying that the picture is being used by scammers to create fake profiles.
So as soon as you get a photo, do a reverse image search to be sure that it was not stolen from the Internet.
Investigate business information
Sparks claimed to work for Rayyan Petroleum in Newark, New Jersey. He sent Grete a link for the company’s website:
Sparks’ fake photo was previously on the website, although it is no longer there. Still, the website has all kinds of problems.
- It’s a free website.
Look at the url — it’s rayyanpetroleum.weebly.com. “Weebly” is hosting service where people can get free websites. In fact, if you scroll to the bottom of any page, it says “Create a free website.” No oil company is going to put their website on a free hosting service.
- No content
This Rayyan Petroleum website has no information on it — nothing about products, locations, or any business information a corporate website normally has.
But what it does have is a section on “Rewards,” and this is the most unbelievable page I’ve ever seen on a website. It lays out exactly how scam victims are supposed to transfer money to the con artist. This company supposedly gives out $100,000 in cash every year, but recipients are supposed to pay $10,000 to cover bank charges and VAT. (There is no VAT in the United States.) Take a look:
- Contact page
The email address is also from a free account — outlook.com. And the address says Newark, New Jersey, but the map is from San Francisco, California. That is on the other side of the United States.
This website is obviously put together by someone who does not live in the United States and does not speak English as a first language. But Grete might not notice this, because she doesn’t either.
Now, there is a company called Rayyan Oil Corporation based in California. Take a look at the real website:
You’ll notice that the scammer stole their company logo to put on his fake LinkedIn profile.
Beware of fake documents
Grete shared two documents that the scammer sent her.
The first was supposedly a “collateral” letter. It is a Microsoft Word document, obviously fake, and I am very surprised that Grete’s bank accepted it. There is no corporate address on the document and no phone number. It reads:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
I ETHAN SCOTT a citizen of United states of America, working as an accountant / auditor with Rayyan Petroleum Company Ltd and a Personal Accountant to Mr. Thomas Spark, hereby declare that Mr. Thomas Spark is well known to me and I stand as shorty, to be held liable should any part of this agreement be breached by my client Mr. Thomas A Spark.
I ETHAN SAMIR SCOTT assure that the sum of seventeen thousand five hundred United States Dollars (17500$) will be remitted back to GRETE’S most preferred account as soon as the check that would be issued to her spouse Mr. THOMAS A SPARKS by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) is cleared at the end of his contract in Ukraine two weeks from now.
Please be informed that check will take a minimum of three (3) banking days from deposit date to be cashable after clearing, as stated in the United States Transactions act.
Also attached to this Agreement is a scanned copy my personal office Identity card.
The second document was a bank transaction log, and I have to admit, it looked authentic. The document included a Bank of America logo, and it seemed to indicate that Thomas Adrian Spark (not Sparks) was paid $1,442,062.80 by Shell Petroleum.
So I investigated further, and that’s when I was totally blown away. I searched on “fake Bank of America transaction log,” and found a website where you can fill out a form online. Here it is:
Apparently PDF Filler is a legitimate business, but this service can be used to create FAKE FORMS. If a scammer has an original form, he can upload it, change the names or other details, and create a new document that looks completely authentic.
Then there’s another service that offers “novelty documents, fake bank statements, fake utility bills and fake payslips.”
Of course there is a disclaimer at the top that says, “providing incorrect or inaccurate information for the purpose of misleading others is committing fraud.” Do you think that’s going to stop a sociopath?
The point is, anything on the Internet can be fabricated. I know of scammers who created complete, functioning banking websites that purported to show they had millions of dollars in their accounts. If the only documentation you have is digital information or websites provided by the other person, it’s like having no documentation at all.
Do not trust online relationships
Here’s the bottom line: You cannot trust online relationships. If you cannot easily be physically with a person that you meet online, move on.
Of course, con artists can scam in person as well — that’s what my ex-husband, James Montgomery did to me. But he had to scam not only me, but all the contacts he made in the community — and he did.
When a relationship is totally online, or mostly online with a few long-distance get-togethers, it’s much easier for the scammer to score.