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Those searching for love online sometimes fall prey to romance scammers, that they wind up owing thousands of dollars.

That is a detective story that started off as a love story. It’s about romance scams.

It’s not unusual for victims to lose thousands of dollars.

Five years ago, an Austrian woman decided to give internet dating a try. (She asked that I just use her web manage, Firefly, for reasons that will shortly become clear.) It had been about a year because Firefly got divorced. "My friends advised me to get online and try to find a person to share my life with," she states through Skype.

Firefly spent a lot of time on her profile, believing she needed to be entirely honest and open if she hoped to genuinely connect with someone. Within 10 minutes of submitting, she had a couple of virtual suitors — and one hauled out. He suggested they ditch the dating website and change to email.

But she had disclosed to her brand new online beau just how much she wanted kids, and shortly his 14-year-old son was emailing her. (I understand; red flag.)

"He even called me, calling me ‘Mom’ a few times," she states.

She wired a few hundred euros to Ghana. It was fairly satisfying, she says; the boy had been ecstatic.

But shortly after, she learned that the son had had an accident in school and wanted help paying hospital bills urgently.

Scarcely had the boy recovered when he had been struck by cholera, which necessitated another costly course of treatment. Within the distance of about three weeks, Firefly wired the equivalent of approximately $1,000 to Ghana. She decided to do a little research online and found that, yes, cholera is an issue in Ghana, and yes, treating it can be expensive — except that Ghana really has a completely free cholera treatment program.

"In that moment, something dating russian girl was not sounding right to me personally," Firefly states.

But she also realized something else: There were probably a lot of people, just like her, being victimized on dating sites, and Firefly was determined to do something about it.

1 afternoon, scrolling through an internet forum, she met Wayne Mays (not his real name) from the UK. Mays is a romance scam-baiter, which means he hangs out on dating sites, posing as a innocent love-seeker, with the goal of unmasking — and exhausting — confidence women and men.

"You pretend to be a sufferer and string them together, attempt to get them to squander as much of their time, money, and resources as you can," he states.

Mays would place any identifying details that hackers used on the internet — from the email addresses they created to the rear stories they recycled — to make them searchable. It’s a form of low-grade, guerrilla cyberwarfare. "

Most people aren’t turning to him for comic relief, though. Five years ago, he and a small team of international volunteers, including Firefly, created Scam Survivors, a hotline and information resource center for victims of online scams — mostly, as it turns out, romance scams. The website tends to be a last resort for victims that are frightened to go to the police, or to inform anyone in their life what’s happened, because they’re embarrassed.

"These folks aren’t stupid in any way. They’re just trusting," Mays says. "With the romance scam, it could be someone who’s been married for quite a few years. Their partner has either died or they’ve divorced and they’ve just begun looking at internet dating. So they have no thought that these scammers are out there. "

While Mays admits that they can’t receive sufferers ‘ cash back, they can help get victims out of frightening situations, particularly if romance scammers hotel to extortion. The most frequent complaint Scam Survivors receive is to get "sextortion," where individuals make tapes of sexual experiences with their victims, then press them to get cash in exchange for keeping the video private. According to Mayes, they’ve managed over 14,000 such instances in the past 3 years.

"We will advise themof all: Don’t fear. Go deactivate all your social networking accounts," he states.

In Mays’ adventure, romance scammers typically target 30 to 40 people a day, and will gradually move on to easier prey should they encounter resistance. Regardless of what you do, he adds, don’t ever pay them that will only earn a scammer more competitive.

As for Firefly, she now refuses to date anyone she doesn’t fulfill the old-fashioned way, face to face. But on the world wide web, she’s still searching for love in all the wrong places — that time, with a mission.

A former version of this story misstated the russian women names size of these scams in the internet romance market.

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