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Romance Scammers Find a New Way To Prey on Indian Women | #DatingScams | #LoveScams | #RomanceScans

It started with two simple words: “Hi, beautiful.” Jhumpa Biswas, 36, would have ignored this direct message from a stranger on Instagram. But intrigued by his name, Mark Anthony, she checked out his profile. He was a foreigner, indeed, and a white guy at that.

“Fair and handsome,” she described him to me in her one-room apartment in Gurugram, a satellite city south of the Indian capital of New Delhi, in April 2023. She pulled up a screenshot of his Instagram display photo to prove it. The man had a nearly symmetrical face, a warm smile and well-groomed stubble. According to his bio, Anthony lived in Scotland and worked as a cosmetic surgeon specializing in rhinoplasty. Biswas, who worked as an assistant at a dermatology clinic, was impressed. She replied to him, saying, “Hi.”

After two weeks of furiously exchanged messages, Anthony had swept her off her feet with old-world chivalry of Clark Gable vintage. When she said she was single, he asked whether “all the men in your country were blind.” In another conversation, he told her it was “a man’s duty to take care of his woman.” He called her “princess.” No man had called her a princess before. In fact, her experience with men until this point had been negligible.

She hadn’t had much time for romance. When she was 16, her father abandoned the family in provincial West Bengal, and her mother, a housewife, moved halfway across the country to Gurugram, which was in the midst of rapid urbanization. Like many working-class women migrants from West Bengal, she found a job in a high-rise apartment as a domestic worker. Biswas and her older sister joined their mom a year later.

Biswas started her first job right after high school as a salesperson at a supermarket, where she earned a salary of nearly $50 a month. For the next 10 years or so, she moved from one job to another as her mother took on more domestic work. In 2014, Biswas joined the upscale dermatology clinic with an enviable salary of $600 a month. It made her feel settled. After her sister got married, she and her mother moved into a studio apartment.

But even while living in a big city and earning a sizable income, she complained about not having anyone in her life to train her in the ways of the world.

“No father, no brother, no husband.” At 36, she felt as naive as a schoolgirl, she said. “I don’t watch the news. Nor do I watch soap operas.” In her free time, she watched trending short videos on Instagram. Her own posts include photos of blooming flowers and goofy cats for her 200-odd followers. “I have posted a few photos of myself, but nothing too attention-seeking.” Once in a while, unknown men would message her, but she would ignore them because they were interested only in a casual relationship. “They don’t know how to talk.”

But Anthony was different. She admired that he took pride in his work: “On his profile, he had photos of himself at the clinic — wearing the doctor’s coat, performing a procedure, attending conferences for surgeons.” They soon exchanged numbers and proceeded to chat on WhatsApp. He checked in on her every day, asking: “How are you? Did you have dinner? How is your aunt’s health?” He would also ask her what time it was in India and told her where the clock was pointing in Edinburgh. Some days, he rang her using WhatsApp. On those calls, she was pleased to hear that he spoke good English (“just like any foreigner”) and never used inappropriate language. She didn’t mind that he asked her to send him photos; she worried only that they might disappoint him.

She decided to be honest.

“I am a little fat, you know,” she texted him one day.

He said all her problems were now his. “Together, we will work on your body.”

They were getting closer, sharing highs and lows during chats that were becoming longer. He told her he had been in love before. “He said his previous girlfriend dumped him. She ran away with his friend. It hurt him to talk about her,” Biswas said. Anthony was among the first people to know that Biswas was promoted at work. She had become a client coordinator at the clinic — a more senior role with a bigger salary. He was thrilled for her. “You deserve it, baby girl.”

A few days later, he inquired if she would like to live abroad. She said she would like it very much. He asked what she thought of the U.K. She wasn’t expecting his next question.

“Would you accept a foreigner for a husband?”

She kept quiet.

“A foreigner comes begging with real love.”

“But you don’t belong to my caste,” she reminded him, reasonably. Who cares about caste? he said. “We live in the 21st century.” He promised to fly to India and ask her mother for her hand.

Despite their vows over WhatsApp not to hide anything from each other, Biswas had kept something close to her chest. She was under enormous pressure to get married. “My mother had been banging on about it for some years.” Biswas looked at her mother as she said this. Sitting beside me on the sofa, the older woman said, “What else was I supposed to do as a mother?”

After Biswas turned 30, the critical age for marriageability in India, her only guardian took matters into her own hands and put up her profile on matrimonial websites, consulted her employers about suitable matches, and spread the word in the neighborhood. From the local shopkeeper to her landlord, everyone knew Biswas was seeking a husband. But finding one was proving to be complicated. “I worry who will take care of her when I am gone,” Biswas’ mother said, causing her to scoff in frustration.

Still, Biswas had tried everything. She met every man she was set up with and opened herself up to chance encounters. Nothing clicked. “I had come to the conclusion that there just wasn’t any man for me [to marry].”

In one of her phases of utter despair, a friend suggested a change of perspective: How about a man who would appreciate her ambition, rather than be intimidated by it? “Go for a basic guy,” he said. “Someone from the working class; someone who would look up to me.” Biswas wouldn’t have been content with a “basic” guy, though. “Were I to marry,” she said, “I would like to be with a man more accomplished than me. Someone who could support me should I want to lie low for a while.”

Anthony was that guy. He spoke about wanting her to relax after they got married. In another conversation, he promised to help her flourish in her career. “Maybe we can work together and achieve something great,” he said. His open-mindedness didn’t come as a surprise. Influenced by common perceptions, she believed men in Western countries were more liberal in their attitudes toward women. While she was still mulling over his proposal, he asked her to prepare for immigration and have her passport and visa ready. “You will love it here in Edinburgh.”

One day, nearly a month after she met Anthony on Instagram, Biswas received a call from an Indian woman representing a courier company who told her a package had been sent to her from a U.K. address. To receive it, she would have to pay a freight charge via a link sent to her mobile phone.

But Biswas wasn’t expecting anything.

Later, Anthony told her it was a gift. He had sent her some cash — almost $25,000 — to help with immigration expenses. At the going exchange rate, that would be 2 million rupees, more money than she had ever held. “He had also sent me the latest iPhone and a collection of gold jewelry — a necklace, bangles, bracelets,” Biswas said.

At least, that’s what he said. But in the weeks that followed, Biswas lost all her savings and every inch of trust in strangers.

To receive the gift of a lifetime, Biswas paid $1,900 in so-called processing charges, tax on foreign gold and bank transaction fees to the courier company that kept asking her for more. She liquidated her bank deposits, borrowed from friends and colleagues, and mortgaged a house she had bought in Kolkata for her mother. After all of this, when they asked for another $9,000 to upgrade her bank account so it could receive the $25,000 in Indian currency, it finally struck her that she was being scammed. “My mind went blank.”

Biswas first blamed the courier company, even as Anthony comforted her throughout, while gently pushing her not to let his gift go to waste. “I asked him — why did you send me so much!” He couldn’t help it, he said. “Baby, this was to show how crazy in love I am with you.” He promised her that his lawyers were on the job to sue the company.

A few days later, she went to file a complaint with the police. Her legs were shaking — it was her first visit to the police station. After five days of relentless chase, the police arrested a gang of four men. “Have a look,” said Satyender Singh, the investigating officer, while pointing to suspects lined up in a row. Three of them were Indian, while the fourth was a foreigner. Singh told her the foreigner was her supposed boyfriend, Anthony.

However, he wasn’t a doctor in the U.K. His name was Chibaka, alias Tall Issa, a native of Imo state in Nigeria who was living in India on a fake passport. “He wasn’t white; he was Black. His skin was darker than my hair,” she said. The constable asked Chibaka to join his hands and apologize to her, which he did. But Biswas turned back and went home.

Biswas had fallen victim to the Nigerian gift scam, one of the latest in the ever-growing range of romance and matrimonial scams targeting Indian women. At its center is an expensive gift that does not exist. Most scammers are African immigrants in India who impersonate white men from Western countries. “They know that as Indians, we always look up to the West. We are in awe of everything Western, from their liberal culture to their purchasing power,” said Shakti Avasthy, a senior police officer in Noida. They enlist like-minded Indians to do various tasks, such as opening bank accounts, buying SIM cards and impersonating courier agents.

Judging by newspaper reports, the scam has been used in many parts of the country, its web of victims ranging from a doctor in Chandigarh, Punjab, to a software engineer in Cuttack, Odisha. “They prey on women who can pay,” said Avasthy, who had arrested two gift scammers in the past two months. A gang of Nigerians, arrested for defrauding a journalist in Noida, had targeted up to 700 Indian women. At the time of his arrest, Chibaka had also been chatting with dozens of Indian women on multiple cell phones.

Most stories follow the same pattern, from the initial message on Instagram to the promised gold jewelry and Apple products in the gift box. There is always a wife who died or a girlfriend who cheated, along with photos of an angelic child who is the light of their lives. In some cases, women also received calls from fake customs officers alerting them that their prospective husbands were held up at the airport because of excessive cash and gold in their possession and would be released only after a proportionate fine was paid.

Media reports have relied on police statements to make sense of this new scam, as most women victims of romance fraud avoid telling their families, for fear that their parents and relatives will judge them or, worse, take away their freedoms. But few go to the police or initiate any legal action because of the stigma attached to being single and open to romantic relationships. Once their name enters the public record, they risk having to endure lifelong shaming. Most prefer to suffer in silence. Biswas made me promise to change her name before inviting me to her house for the rare interview.

Using the pretext of marriage to defraud women and their families is widespread across India, a country where no other social institution holds more value. From 2020 to 2021, the National Crime Records Bureau saw a 30% increase in matrimonial and romance scams. But discussions about these scams often concentrate on their more sensational elements, such as a man marrying 27 women or a woman discovering the deceit only after a year. While police and court documents may detail the methods and money trails, they often miss the larger picture. The prevalent narratives tend to simplify the situation, depicting scammers as ingenious and victims as naive, without addressing the deeper societal shifts these incidents reflect.

In my interviews with the victims, their self-possession stood out. It appeared as if these women were being punished under a patriarchal system for exerting their agency. Chitra Raghavan, a U.S.-based academic who has studied Indian matrimonial scams, appears in a recent documentary, “Wedding.con,” to argue that this is indeed the case. “It is a gesture of deep hostility for women daring to be brave, daring to be independent, daring to be adventurous,” Raghavan said. In a rare attempt to honor women’s testimonies, the documentary showed the range of matrimonial scams. The target is always a single woman earning an income, from a 24-year-old stepping into the arranged marriage market to a 38-year-old single mother looking for a second chance at love. Women speak clearly about what they do and do not want. One of them was looking for someone who did not subscribe to the dowry system. Another did not wish to go through the embarrassment of subjecting herself to the judgment of prospective in-laws.

As more women take the initiative in finding their life partners, they are ever more vulnerable to the traps set by matrimonial scammers, who are moving away from their usual playbook of preying on their families. Scammers capitalize on these women’s demand for agency in romantic relationships by pretending to embody the ideal partner their victims seek. For instance, Sneha, a coder for a multinational company in Bengaluru, agreed to a courtship because she felt the man “respected” her opinion. Priyanka, a product manager at an IT firm in Pune, was charmed by a foreigner who seemed to have a deep appreciation for his deceased wife. “I did not know such men existed who are so appreciative of their wives. I had not seen that,” she said. When he contacted her on Instagram, posing as a U.S. Navy engineer posted at a marine camp in California, she had just left an abusive marriage that left her with “intense trauma.” Living with her parents and caring for her young daughter, the 38-year-old was on a mission to “rebuild” herself.

In many instances, these scams would involve extended courtships where women met the supposed parents and relatives of the prospective groom who were part of the deceit, and fraudsters would spin elaborate stories to solicit money, citing various needs such as visa fees for post-marriage migration, down payments on property intended for shared use, bribes for their boss to ensure a job posting in the same town or the classic ploy of urgent funds needed for a sick mother’s surgery.

With more Indian women completing higher education than ever before, their aspirations have grown. Salaried work is often their first step toward upward mobility. Having a white-collar job facilitates unprecedented freedoms for women: She can go out on her own, have her own mobile phone, meet new people and make friends online. That Biswas could buy herself an iPhone 14 felt like a personal triumph to her. Buying a house with her own savings was another dream fulfilled.

According to the Indian government’s Periodic Labour Force Survey 2020, only 18.6% of working-age women in India are formally employed, with their numbers dipping year after year as many are held back because of caregiving duties and social restrictions. Nearly 50% of urban women don’t step out of the house even once a day, according to a 2023 paper based on findings from the 2019 Time Use Survey, which covers over 138,000 households across India. Those who left the house often did so on account of education or work.

Hence, like Priyanka, Biswas was leading an unusual life for a middle-class woman of her age, as over 90% of women in India are married before the age of 25. So to be in one’s 30s without a husband is practically rebellious. Few women would dream of doing that without an independent income. Some, like Biswas, are among those who are the first women in their families to boast a white-collar job.

Single women, especially in their 30s, are considered a problem in Indian society. Nosy relatives are easier to deal with than structural discrimination, under which women are denied housing and other necessities to set up an independent life. Women who live alone struggle to take out a bank loan or apply for a government-issued identity card for no reason other than the apparent lack of a husband or father.

Moreover, in India’s thriving market for arranged marriages, ambitious women are a red flag. If they are highly educated or career-minded, prospective husbands and their families ask, will they be able to devote themselves to home and family? Rejections are common and crushing for many young women who are pushed by their families to go through the routine of matchmaking for arranged marriages. Some refuse to take part, and today, thousands of women are also choosing to remain single. According to India’s last recorded census in 2011, 15% of women ages 20 to 34 had never been married, which meant that India had 22 million single women. With population growth, that number is larger today.

Despite enjoying greater freedoms and agency, many women still express a desire to find and settle down with the perfect partner, one who sees them as their equal and not inferior in any way. This longing, along with a widespread lack of awareness about digital privacy and financial security, has made women particularly vulnerable and created new opportunities for scammers.

Dheeraj Pandey, a Delhi-based customs clearance broker who has been raising awareness about these scams on his YouTube channel, has received hundreds of calls since 2020 from women who, he said, are “living in big cities, small cities, everywhere.” Most of them, he added, are in white-collar jobs and like the idea of being married to a foreigner or an Indian living abroad.

“They fell for the lure of being able to leave India and live in a better place,” Pandey said.

Fraudsters used to scour matchmaking websites, but now they prefer to hunt for victims on Instagram, because, unlike matrimonial portals where women’s accounts are often created and managed by their families, this is where they are on their own — posting selfies, engaging with followers, responding to trends and selling products. Owing to India’s sharp digital gap — women are 20% less likely than men to own a smartphone, and many access the internet under restrictions — those with public accounts also project a degree of independence and become a target of people who are on Instagram offering love, whether real or fake.

While social media makes them more vulnerable to romance scams, it also opens new channels to raise awareness. Some victims are sharing their experiences online and encouraging others to add their voices in comments, thereby creating a web of solidarity, which is especially important as they navigate a culture of fear and shame. Before weighing their options on how to report a scam, many first browse YouTube to see if anyone has posted something similar. Often, they discover someone else relates to what they thought was their unique story.

Information about the telltale signs of scams is also saving some potential victims. In one example, YouTube creator Nidhi Singh shared a zoomed-in photo of a luxury car that a scammer had sent her. In an effort to convince Nidhi that he is the kind of person who casually showers his loved ones with precious gifts, the scammer, who posed as a London-based doctor, claimed he just bought the car for his father. “I noticed it already had a number plate. I knew it couldn’t be a new car,” Nidhi shared with her viewers. When she questioned him about it, he responded with fury: “Are you mad? Are you sick?” She eventually blocked his account.

A couple of years before receiving Anthony’s direct message on Instagram, Biswas had earnestly tried to find a partner through the arranged marriage system in India. Her mother chose a man from a matchmaking website, and the family she cooked for, whose advice she respected, approved of the choice. Biswas had met him a few times and even had him over for a meal. Then one day he asked her to take out a loan for him in her name. That put her off him forever, but she had probably saved herself from a loan scam raging on matrimonial sites, in which fraudsters would propose marriage, and after the woman agreed, they would ask her to take out a loan on their behalf.

Now, in the aftermath of the gift scam, all Biswas wants is to have her money back. But the police were able to seize only $700 from the scammers because, they said, the remainder had long been dispatched to Nigeria. Biswas intends to take the accused to court unless they offer to settle the case by paying back what they took from her. Aware that court dates could disrupt her life, she is determined to fight it out.

She reckons that perhaps she will have more free time on her hands now that she won’t be looking for a man.

“I am going to be single,” she said, looking sideways at her mother, who pretended not to hear. “Is this your final decision?” I asked. “Yes. What is the problem with being single?”

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