Mary Chater had been preparing to host her first Christmas party since the death of her husband when she was approached online by an attractive man who described himself as a UN doctor.
Her Facebook profile was open and she had just uploaded a photograph showing the mince pies she had baked when the man, who called himself “Dani”, sent her a friend request, before complimenting her appearance and commenting on the party preparations.
It was December 2022 and almost two and a half years since Chater, now 65, had lost her partner of 23 years, Julian Curry, the actor best known for playing Claude Erskine-Browne in Rumpole of the Bailey.
They always held festive parties together and that Christmas, she had finally felt up to hosting a celebration by herself, as well as being open to the possibility of meeting someone new. “I suppose, because I was feeling, not vulnerable exactly, but sort of open to a relationship, I stupidly just thought, ‘Oh, he’s very nice’,” she said.
The relationship developed quickly, with intimate conversations and video calls, before Chater, an actress and writer, agreed to send money to help fund the doctor’s medical research.
Weeks later, she discovered the attractive man in the photographs was Christian Gerhard Boving, a doctor and television personality in Denmark whose identity had been stolen by romance fraudsters. Chater is just one of potentially thousands of people who have been targeted by scammers either posing as Boving or using his image to create fake profiles.
Christian Boving said scammers had been impersonating him for a decade
CHRISTIAN GERHARD BOVING
Some victims are thought to have lost vast amounts of money to the fraudsters or have even left their husbands for men they believed to be the doctor.
Although Chater’s bank blocked some payments and refunded the others, the emotional effects have been long-lasting. “The shame was unbearable and I’m only now telling my close friends about it”, she said. “It kind of pulled the rug from under my feet and definitely destabilised me. He just knew how to unlock my heart in an instant and that’s devastating.
“It was mental abuse.”
‘I didn’t ask for this. I am a victim myself’
Over in Denmark, the real Boving is at a loss as to what he can do. As well as feeling desperately sorry for the romance fraud victims, the widespread theft of his identity has had a devastating impact on his own life.
Scammers have been impersonating him for a decade and in that time, he thinks there could have been around 7,000 fake profiles across social media and dating apps. He has been approached by hundreds of women who have fallen victim to his impersonators and spends around an hour each day replying to them and reporting fraudulent accounts.
“I don’t know what to do, I feel so sorry for all these people,” he told The Times. “You know, I’m gay, I’m married to a guy … I didn’t ask for this. I am a victim myself.”
Boving suspects he has been targeted by fraudsters because of the variety of his pictures
CHRISTIAN GERHARD BOVING
Boving first experienced identity theft in 2013, when friends alerted him to a profile on a dating app that was using his picture while he was a military doctor stationed in Afghanistan. While the police dealt with that case, the problem continued and has worsened significantly over the past three years.
When Boving approached police in Denmark more recently, they were unable to help, he claimed. He has even been reported to the police himself by women who wrongly believed he was the scammer. Photographs show his face cleverly edited on to an American passport and a World Health Organisation (WHO) membership card.
Boving has a young daughter and avoids posting photographs of her online after she was used as “bait” by scammers, he said.
The most harrowing case he has heard of involved a German woman who was targeted by an impersonator claiming to be on a warship. The scammer went on to tell the woman that his daughter had died and asked for money to pay for the funeral until he could get home.
“This guy shows up at her door and she pays, like €1,000, then she goes to the funeral and, of course, there’s no funeral,” Boving said. Others “broke relationships with their husbands, they were so much in love with me”, he continued.
“I have the children of two women writing to me that their mum has fallen in love. She doesn’t believe she has been scammed, and she keeps sending money directly to Nigeria.”
In some instances, videos have been created using artificial intelligence (AI) and women believe they have had genuine conversations with him. “That is just the beginning and it is getting worse: AI is here to stay and it will be a huge problem in the future, for sure,” he added.
As well as his appearance, Boving suspects he has been targeted by scammers because of the variety of his photographs.
In images sent to a victim, scammers photoshopped Boving’s photograph so he appears to hold a letter insisting he is “real”
CHRISTIAN GERHARD BOVING
Another photoshopped photograph showed Boving in a hospital bed
CHRISTIAN GERHARD BOVING
The WHO membership card that was photoshopped by scammers with Boving’s face and a different name
CHRISTIAN GERHARD BOVING
In Denmark, where he now works as a GP and has a skincare brand, he is a public figure and has shared many details about his life on social media.
He formerly worked for the Danish royal family on their yacht and as well as serving in the military, has made regular television appearances. Boving also hosted a survival television show, describing himself as a “Danish Bear Grylls”, and enjoys a number of outdoor pursuits such as hunting and kayaking.
But despite his fame in Denmark, he is virtually unknown in the UK and many other countries across the globe.
For Chater, the main attraction to Boving’s pictures had been his resemblance to an Italian man she had been in a relationship with while a student at Oxford University.
It also marked her first romantic approach since becoming a widow. As her husband had died during the pandemic, she spent much of the aftermath on her own. “We were made for one another,” she said of her marriage. “So I’d been used to a fantastic amount of affection — and suddenly, I was getting it from someone online.”
They began speaking regularly and Dani told Chater stories about the inspiration for his medical career. He claimed to be a trauma doctor working in Somalia and said he had previously worked in Chicago. “It was really detailed,” she said. “That’s partly what drew me into the spider’s web, caught me in his cobweb, as it were.”
They began to speak on video chats but Dani claimed that there was something wrong with the camera at his end. In an attempt to reassure Chater, he met her a couple of times with his camera turned on. But the room he appeared in was dark and it looked as though he had enlarged his Facebook image to cover his face.
She recalled: “I could see his body but it was so dark I couldn’t see whether his mouth was in sync with the words. It was very clever of him and I said, ‘I’m really not sure if that is you or if you are pretending’. So that sowed doubts in my head.”
Chater had initially received requests for money from someone claiming to be the man’s son. She refused, but then Dani began asking for money to fund medical research, which she eventually agreed to. He asked for online gift cards, claiming it was safer than sending cash, which Chater purchased from high street shops. She later made attempts to transfer money from her bank, which did not go through.
Her bank, Nationwide, became suspicious and raised concerns that she was being scammed. Chater agreed to stop talking to Dani but within days her resolve crumbled and they resumed communicating.
Nationwide intervened again when she made another attempt to send money and after further conversations with the bank’s team, she realised she had been defrauded.
Dani, who was aware she had become suspicious, then claimed his “real name” was Boving, whose photographs he had stolen. When Chater looked up the name online, she saw social media posts warning about scams using the real doctor’s identity.
“It kind of knocked me for six for quite a time afterwards,” she said. “It knocked my faith in my own judgment. Because the whole time, I was thinking, ‘I wonder if this is a scam’. But then, the other part of me didn’t want it to be a scam. I wanted it to be real.”
Identity theft is ‘exploding’
Boving believes social media companies could do more to prevent scammers from operating.
He claimed he had struggled in particular to get fake accounts removed from Facebook. He estimated that around 2,500 fake profiles of him had been set up on the platform in recent years.
In July, he emailed Facebook’s parent company Meta with a list of dozens of profiles that remained online despite being reported. In the email he said the fake profiles were “damaging my reputation” and described being “regularly harassed” by women. As of December 2023, most of the profiles on the list were still active.
Meta did not comment but claimed to have added extra protections to the doctor’s genuine Facebook and Instagram accounts designed to tackle account impersonation.
Ruth Grover, founder of ScamHaters United, a group raising awareness of romance scams, warned that romance fraud involving the theft of identities was “exploding”.
Doctors and people in the military are often targeted, she said, because those backgrounds allow scammers to create “perfect scenarios”. For instance, the scammers can claim to be based overseas in war-torn countries and cite security reasons or a poor internet connection as excuses for keeping their cameras off in video calls. They might also claim to have difficulty accessing bank accounts when they ask for money, which is often requested in the form of gift cards.
“They are the top two at the moment. We’ve got some businessmen used, but mainly it is the military and the doctors,” Grover added.
Another doctor, Dr Vasilije Vujovic, who lives in Belgrade, has also been targeted by scammers and this month told a newspaper how one fake account in his name had 230,000 followers.
In the past financial year, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau received 8,036 reports of romance fraud.
Help moving forward
Victim Support runs a specialised service to help the most affected victims of fraud, such as Chater, as well as a romance fraud peer support group. The number of romance fraud victims it has helped has risen year on year for the past five years, according to Lisa Mills, a romance fraud expert at the charity.
“What happened to Mary is a stark example of the kind of cruel emotional manipulation and abuse inherent to this crime,” she said. “This type of fraud is particularly insidious because it plays on our basic desire for love and connection. Strong emotions, like love, are by their very nature all-consuming — they overwhelm us and can stop us thinking rationally. So, even for people who are aware of romance fraud, being in a ‘love bubble’ can distort their sense of reality and make them vulnerable.”
It is “surprisingly common” for criminals to co-opt real identities and create personas, she added. “This can make the scam more convincing, helping them to target victims, but it is also extremely disturbing for those whose identities have been stolen. “Knowing that someone is using your picture and the story of who you are to extort money is deeply disturbing, made worse by the sad truth that it’s very difficult to stop.”
The shame and embarrassment often felt by romance fraud victims means many never tell anyone about what has happened to them. A conversation about the issue with a Victim Support worker prompted Chater to speak out.
“I wanted to because she said some women kill themselves because of the shame — and if I could just help one woman, then it’s worth it,” said Chater, who is writing a play about her experience with romance fraud. “It’s important that people are as open about this as possible.”