Unknowing Victims

Are you a victim? It’s very hard for people to admit to having been the victim of a crime. For some, it is because it’s an embarrassing admission that they were duped. For others, it is because they don’t even know that they are victims.

Gary Allman Ten-minute read.   Resources
Double Trouble – January 19, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

We often see victims in the world, and sometimes it’s obvious to us that they are, in fact, victims. These victims of spousal abuse, victims of addiction, or victims of circumstances sometimes seem oblivious to the fact that they are being victimized. We wonder why they can’t or haven’t seen it, or why they deliberately choose to be in denial about being a victim. If we have any self-awareness we might wonder if we, too, are oblivious victims.

We live in an immoral world. As Christians we are called to live a moral life and to love one another. We should even love those who would do us harm, which can be a challenge. But as Christians, we should also be championing the causes of those who have become victims.

I’m never going to grow tired of saying it (and I know I say it a lot). It’s yet another example of our fifth baptismal covenant.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

But what about the victims who are closer to home? What about you? Are you a victim? No?

Don’t be quite so sure. I’m not going to talk about ‘obvious’ issues such as addiction, which we don’t talk about nearly enough. No, instead I’m going to talk about an old-fashioned crime in a modern guise.

Here’s what happened to me.

Without realizing it I’ve innocently become embroiled in organized crime.

There, I’ve said it. It sounds sort of exciting as we are tempted to think of the scenarios that play out in the movies. At the same time, when put like that, it also sounds rather mundane.

There is no scurrilous money laundering, even though I live in the Ozarks. I’m not being blackmailed, nor have I or my family (thus far) been threatened. In fact, I’m one of the lucky ones. The criminals haven’t taken anything of real value from me, and more importantly, I’ve discovered their nefarious activities. I know what they are doing, and for the past several years I’ve been doing what I can do to make their crimes more difficult.

The bad news is that most of the victims in my position don’t, and possibly never will, know that they are victims. Which is why I ask, are you sure you’re not a victim? You may not know it.

My story only represents one side of the equation. There are victims on the other side who, if they don’t suspect the criminals’ intentions in time, will lose both financially and emotionally. It’s a modern take on a crime that’s as old as the hills. According to the FTC, this crime has cost Americans some $143M in the last year. In my opinion that’s a huge underestimation.

What are these crimes? They’re commonly known as Romance Scams or Catfishing.

In my case what’s being stolen are photographs of me. The pictures are used to create fake profiles used in online social media, games, and dating accounts. The purpose of these accounts, which use my photos, is to defraud people. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that people like me can do to stop these criminals from getting ahold of your online pictures, except perhaps by never appearing on the Internet in the first place.

Michael Lucious – one of stranger monikers the scammers have adopted.

They use my photographs (and the photos of many, many others) to make their fake accounts look real. They claim to be divorced or widowed and are looking for friendship and love. What they are really looking for is a way to separate vulnerable and lonely people from their money. They tend to target older divorced or widowed women, but they are just as likely to use pictures of women to target vulnerable men.

My wife says my pictures are being used because I have a friendly and trustworthy face (who am I to argue?). Also, there are lots of pictures of me doing all sorts of fun things, very useful for the made-up scenarios they weave into their schemes. There I am on planes, in airports, on sailboats, with injuries, out in the woods, and even with my step-daughter. They love to include her pictures because the idea of a widowed man raising a young daughter alone makes them seem far more endearing.

A sample of pictures of Gary Allman used in fake social media accounts. Image credit: Gary Allman

By the way, the irony of this situation isn’t lost on my wife and I, given that we met online, and that at one point her bank account was frozen because her bank thought I was a scammer.

When I first discovered that my pictures were being used, I thought it was a joke. I quickly realized that it wasn’t and I took action to close down all the faux accounts I could find.

And that’s when things got a little bit hairy.

When the fake account suddenly disappeared, the lovelorn victims searched Facebook for their missing beaus and found the real me. In the process, they also discovered the heartbreaking, and ire-raising news that the love of their life was not widowed, but was happily married and living in Missouri. I was not an oil rig worker, or commodities trader living in New York, Geneva, or somewhere in Texas. In short, they thought it was me deceiving them, having a “fling” on the side.

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned”


The Mourning Bride by William Congreve

They took to sending abusive messages to my wife and I.

Thankfully, the zero engagement rule seems to work equally well with jilted lovers as it does with Internet Trolls. Foreseeing a long future of such abuse, I created a webpage detailing the scams and my innocent involvement. Now when I find and report a fake account, I post a link to my page and a picture of the fake account publicly on social media. It’s my hope that the grieving lovers will see the pictures of all the different accounts I’ve closed and realize they’ve been taken in by a scam.

To be clear, we are not talking about one or two fake accounts, I’ve closed over a hundred, and I am still closing them to this day. It’s like playing whack-a-mole. And that’s just the ones I’ve found, there will be hundreds more out there. (And of course, I’m not the only one. There are thousands of people in my shoes whether they know it or not).

The messages I get now are no longer abusive. They are the stories of people who are victims of these schemes. Some have, fortunately realized something was up, and didn’t part with any money. But many discovered their error too late.

There was one lady who lost all the insurance money she received after her husband died. Another lost over $160,000. I received a message from the granddaughter of one victim who lost everything, and it was presumed as a consequence she took her life.

It is with a sad and broken heart that I am writing to you. I have been writing to “Gary Brooks” since May 2014 and have sent him over $160,000 of my retirement and credit card money…

… I have finally accepted the fact that I am indeed being scammed. I have had such high hopes of a future with this other guy and really sucked in all the affection and promises he sent me…

… I was wondering what you would suggest me to do next …

This is a serious crime, with serious consequences, and very little chance of redress for the victims.

The scammer’s techniques are to quickly move the victims from public conversations to private chat, texting, and phone calls. That reduces the chance that the victim will see any evidence of the scam being outed, It also leaves the scammers free to be grooming more victims simultaneously. The scammers weave convincing and sympathy-inducing stories for their victims, often involving accidents, or temporarily delayed business funding to lure their victims into sending money.

Another disturbing aspect is that these criminals often claim to be religious to make their stories sound more trustworthy.

From a family member

The lies and deceit can seem obvious to casual observers. Unfortunately the victims are often desperately invested in their relationship with the scammer, and will not believe anyone who tries to make them realize they are being duped.

Some of the messages I get are heartbreaking

…you don’t know me but I just wanted to get some kind of clarity.

… had been talking to someone she ‘met’ on the game words … and they used your picture… they ended up getting money … My whole family tried warning her but she refused to listen to us because this person told her everything she wanted to hear… this person was supposed to be returning back to the states from an overseas oil rig but conveniently never showed up…

…was found dead in her home with no clear indication of how. All we know is her newly refilled pain pills were gone … We all believe this person lead her on for so long that eventually it just took a toll on her emotionally … I guess I was really just needing your advice. I really want justice for what this person has taken away from my family.

The scammers don’t only use social media. They use dating websites, games sites, and by a stroke of luck I even found one on the Fitbit site!

One scammer created a complete website (now taken down) posing as a cinematographer.

Once their foul schemes have been discovered the scams don’t necessarily stop. They may pretend to be victims themselves and contact their victims (since they know who they are), and create some complex (but costly) plot to get revenge. The scammers have even been known to send people to physically go and meet the victims.

So…

let’s be careful out there.

Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, Hill Street Blues

What Can We Do?

We can raise awareness. Romance Scams are often treated lightheartedly. For the victims of the scams, their hopes of love and happiness are dashed, and their financial security may be compromised. There’s nothing amusing about either scenario. Spreading the word will warn people that these crimes are taking place, and hopefully reduce the number of victims.

Raising awareness that pictures are being stolen for this purpose should encourage people to check if their pictures are being stolen, and report any fake accounts.

This won’t stop the crimes. There have always been con men and fraudsters. However, widespread awareness of internet catfish scams will make it harder for these criminals to operate. And that can only be good.

Are Your Pictures Being Used?

Facebook search for people with the name "Gary Allman".
This is the result of one of my early Facebook searches for “Gary Allman”

The scammers tend to target people with a good supply of pictures. One of their most popular sources of pictures are people serving in the military. An overseas deployment can explain why they can’t meet their victim in person.

How would you know if someone is using photographs of you in romance scams?

For me, the first ones were easy. They were foolish enough to use my real name and have publicly visible pictures of me. So just do a search in Facebook for your name. If any account with a picture of you shows up and it’s not yours, you’ve found a scammer of one sort or another.

If you can learn the aliases they are using, then trawling through a social media search on that name can unearth a load of these fake profiles. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘Gary Brooks’ I’ve closed down.

How you take down false accounts depends on the organization. In my experience, Facebook and Instagram have been very good at taking down reported accounts. But their record in making it easy to identify them or stop them from being created is appalling. Google is next to useless. Even with copies of my driver’s license, they refuse to remove them.

Are You a Romance Scam Victim?

If you are single and dating partners online, reverse image searches of the profile pictures and any other images your date shares works well for identifying suspect people. This is why I’ve made sure that the pictures of me are easily found with a simple search.

Be on the alert for anything that doesn’t look or feel right. Is the person’s writing style consistent? Does their command of English match their supposed nationality? Are the pictures really taken where and when they claim to be? Do the things in the background of the photo match the story you’re being told? Does the person avoid answering questions about inconsistencies? Does the apparent age of the person in the pictures keep changing? Be careful. There are tens of thousands of scam accounts on Facebook. I wouldn’t be surprised if over 30% of Facebook accounts were scammers of one sort or another.

Needless to say, never send money or give financial information to someone you’ve not met in person and don’t really know, regardless of how convincing they may be.

There are several groups to help you identify potential scammers (links below).

Even harder than dealing with a scammer yourself is convincing someone you know that they may be in danger of becoming a victim. They usually refuse to listen, even when they may have their own suspicions.

In the worst case, if you’ve become a victim of a scammer, you can report the crime to the FBI online (ironic isn’t it?).

Resources

Back to Contents

I Think I’ve Been Scammed Resources

Reverse Image Searches: support.google.com/websearch/answer/1325808

Romance Scam Forum: www.romancescam.com/forum/index.php (this one is particularly good)

Nigerian Dating Scams: www.watchforscams.com/nigerian-dating-scams.html

Social Catfish: Scams: socialcatfish.com/category/scams/

FBI Cyber Crime Page: www.fbi.gov/investigate/cyber

Facebook ‘Scam Haters’ page: www.facebook.com/thefightbackstartshere/

About Romance Scams

Gizmodo Article (I agreed to take part in this piece): Pray for the Souls of the People Sucked Into This Dating Site Hell.

BBC article: Scam baiter: Why I risk death threats to expose online cons.

Washington Post Romance Scam Article (May 2018): When a stranger takes your face: Facebook’s failed crackdown on fake accounts.

Washington Post Romance Scam Article (Feb. 2019): Romance scams cost Americans $143 million last year, FTC says.

FBI (February 2018): FBI Cautions Public to be Wary of Online Romance Scams.

Federal Trade Commission (Feb. 2019): Romance scams rank number one on total reported losses.

Reporting a Scammer

FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center: www.ic3.gov/default.aspx

Federal Trade Commission:
https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/Information#crnt&panel1-3

Gary Allman

Gary Allman is the Director of Communications at The Diocese of West Missouri

One thought on “Unknowing Victims”

  1. This article is great Gary and I appreciate you taking the time to let those of us out there in the world wide web know abut this. God Bless you Brother.

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