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How AI is revolutionizing Internet fraud and romance scams | #DatingScams | #LoveScams | #RomanceScans

In hindsight, the red flags seem so obvious.

A scammer a McKinney woman said she met on Instagram claimed to be a German cardiologist, and for months, the two messaged back and forth, building what she thought was a true relationship.

However, the woman, who wanted not to reveal her identity, said her loneliness was blinding.

After sending him more than $3,200 when he claimed he had been robbed during a business trip to Nigeria, she acknowledged he was a scammer and fell into a deep depression.

“It wasn’t the money. It’s the shame,” she told the CBS News Texas I-Team. “You think, ‘How could I be so stupid?’ I tried to kill myself because I felt like I couldn’t live knowing that I had participated in something like that.”

RELATED STORY: North Texas woman loses thousands of dollars in Frankie Beverly romance scam

According to the FBI, last year 19,000 Americans fell victim to romance scams, losing $1.3 billion. Despite this staggering number, federal investigators say this crime is largely underreported due to shame and embarrassment.

On the other side of these scams are people like Chris Maxwell in Nigeria.

Maxwell told the I-Team he began committing romance scams in 2016. Over the course of four years, he said he talked to more than 100 mainly American women online, with 10 ultimately sending him more than $70,000.

Maxwell said he would go to Facebook and dating websites, pretending to be an American soldier. The former romance scammer said he targeted divorced and widowed women from the United States.

“People do it a lot here (in Nigeria),” he said. “So without learning about it, you already know everything about it because it’s a common thing.”

Maxwell said he stopped scamming when he was confronted online by one of his victims who had sent him more than $30,000.

“She became sick. She became depressed. She was going through hell because of me,” he told the I-Team. “I felt really bad, really guilty. She was 61 years old. I have a mother and just imagined someone was doing this to my own mom.”

Chris Maxwell

CBS News Texas

These days, Maxwell works as a consultant for Social Catfish, a U.S. internet company that verifies online identities to help prevent fraud. However, while Maxwell said he no longer scams people, there’s no shortage of those who still do.

“It’s a substantial problem and one that is rapidly accelerating,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Arun Rao with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Federal investigators warn that a new wave of romance scammers is using artificial intelligence to generate fake photos, audio, and even videos. This technological advancement makes it easier to pull off a romance scam and harder to spot one.

Rao said, “It’s chilling and it makes it hard for law enforcement to intervene.”

Prosecuting romance scammers can be challenging, in large part because many of them operate overseas. However, federal prosecutors have shown they will pursue cases aggressively when they have the opportunity. In 2021, 35 people in North Texas were indicted on federal charges related to romance scams that stole $17 million from more than 100 victims nationwide. In March, one of the women involved in the scheme received a 10-year prison sentence and was ordered to pay $2 million in restitution.

If you have become a victim, experts say to contact your bank right away and tell them what happened. Also, report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC warns if you’re thinking about giving online dating a try, be aware of red flags and follow these tips:

  • Be skeptical of anyone who quickly pledges their love and devotion, no matter how sincere they may seem.
  • Before making an emotional commitment, do your homework:
    • Research your new acquaintance online, searching public records. You may also want to consider paying for a service to help with a background check.
    • Do a reverse image search on the posted profile image to see if it’s a fake stock photo.
    • Bear in mind that scammers may be using stolen identities to create profiles that appear to be real.
  • Be wary of anyone who is never able to meet you in person. While the need for social distancing provides romance scammers with additional cover for refusing to meet or canceling at the last minute, you should still consider this a warning sign. 
  • If someone asks for personal information or money, consider it a red flag. Never send money to someone you don’t know well or have never met in person. Discontinue all communication immediately and report the individual to the dating app manager and to law enforcement.

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