Here is my story about military romance scams on Facebook and Instagram. The fraud has ensnared thousands of victims and smeared the reputations of countless soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. While such scams have proliferated on social media for years, Facebook and the United States military appear helpless to stop it. The most recent episode of The Times’s new TV show, “The Weekly,” was a one-hour special focused on the problem.

For the story, I spoke to dozens of victims — both the scammed women and the impersonated servicemen. I also questioned Facebook and the Pentagon about what they do (and don't do) to combat the problem. And I traveled to Nigeria to talk to the scammers and understand where the cons originate.

At The Times, I cover the immense influence of large technology companies like Facebook and Apple. I’ve written about celebrity impostors on Facebook and Instagram, as well as fake Mark Zuckerbergs that scam people out of cash. I was one of the five bylines on The Times’s monthslong investigation into Facebook’s recent crises, which helped win the Polk Award for national reporting and the Gerald Loeb Award for investigative reporting. (I also am part of the team that’s been investigating how Boeing’s 737 Max jets ended up with a fatal flaw.) You can find all my stories here. Before joining The Times, I spent seven years at The Wall Street Journal covering technology, aviation and national news.

You can follow my reporting hunting Facebook scams in a one-hour documentary that is now available on Hulu.

UPDATE: Thank you so much for all the smart questions. This was fun. I'm signing off for now, but will try to check back later. We appreciate your readership and interest.

Twitter: @jacknicas


Comments: 1322 • Responses: 17  • Date: 

SuicidalNomad1027 karma

What's the mentality behind these scams? Aside from "they want money," do they show remorse? Are they aware of the ethics of these scams or is it arbitrary?

thenewyorktimes2393 karma

This is one of the main things I went to Nigeria to understand. From the victims' perspective, the issue is black and white: These scammers are bad. Now none of us believe that their crimes are justified, but speaking to them does add more nuance to the story. When I met these young men in Nigeria, they were remorseful. They understood their scams did harm. But they said the money made them numb to that guilt. "Definitely there is always conscience,” one scammer told me. “But poverty will not make you feel the pain.”

It also seems that they are so disconnected from their victims, that it is easier to ignore the emotional toll of their actions. They never meet these people in real life, and often lose contact with them after the victim realizes they have been scammed.

But I will say some scammers did try to justify their actions by saying that their Western victims can afford to lose money or that they are greedy. And another bizarre rationale that they gave me and has even been repeated in Nigerian hip-hop songs: Cybercrime has meant fewer young men are resorting to violent crime.

Yukisuna751 karma

How do you ensure your personal safety, doing all of this?

thenewyorktimes1001 karma

As journalists, we take calculated risks. We have an experienced security team that considers the risks of certain trips and advise us accordingly. While abroad, we also often work with local journalists who know the terrain better than we do.

Readyrabbit583428367 karma

I listened to your segment on Smerconish this morning. Fascinating story. Your persistence to head to Nigeria and try to confront the scammers face to face was just amazing. Keep up the great work, investigative journalism cannot be allowed to die.

thenewyorktimes223 karma

Thank you! (If you want to support this sort of investigative journalism at The New York Times, the best thing you can do is subscribe.)

bernaferrari401 karma

Why are most(?) of these scammers from Nigeria? What's special there that there isn't anywhere else in the world?

thenewyorktimes638 karma

Good question. Thanks for it. I first want to say that internet scammers are everywhere, including in the U.S. And I also want to note that such scammers represent a tiny fraction of the population in Nigeria. The vast majority of people there do honest work, and many are frustrated with the poor reputation these criminals have given their country.

It does appear to be true, however, that many of the people who pull off these sorts of love scams reside in West Africa. Officials at the F.B.I. and the United States military said their investigations have concluded that, and my own reporting on one scam led me to Nigeria.

It isn't exactly clear why this crime has gained popularity there, but in speaking with the scammers themselves and academics who track them, here is what I found. Nigeria has three ingredients that help foster such scammers: widespread internet access, English fluency, and poverty. I also think simple momentum is a partial explanation. As scammers find success with such crimes, they pass the trade on to friends and siblings, even including scripts for online chats with victims.

I obtained some of those scripts. “I am 90G military officer with the 1s infantry 62nd battalion army,” said one. The scripts also help with small talk: “Movies: Brave Heart and all the films that Anthony Hopkins is in.”

jonnyinternet292 karma

What does Facebook really do with my data? It's not like they know my ATM pin

How can they use that I like star wars, beer and am happy against me?

thenewyorktimes441 karma

Hi, thanks for question. It's a common one and a good one. There is a lot written about the data these large tech companies have on us, but so what? One of Facebook's primary uses for the data is to help advertisers better target you with ads. That's actually the basis of its business. But there have also been other, more political uses, like when the voter-profiling firm Cambridge Analytica used the data to aid President Trump's 2016 campaign. Tech companies also frequently employ users' data to develop new artificial intelligence.

sum_muthafuckn_where233 karma

Is the Nigerian government (or that of India, Bangladesh, and other countries with large scamming industries) doinganything to address the issue? Do they even see it as an issue when all the victims are foreigners and there are unlikely to be an repercussions?

thenewyorktimes409 karma

Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is responsible for combating these sorts of scams there. The agency regularly publicizes raids on so-called Yahoo Boys where they confiscate computers and cars. We tried to meet with them while we were in Nigeria, but they stopped responding to our messages. It appears they are trying to fight this problem, but the scammers say their efforts don't do much. Several Yahoo Boys told me they've been caught multiple times by local police and simply paid bribes to avoid arrest.

Diet_Coke198 karma

Have you come across any scams that made you think something like 'Damn, you're an asshole, but that's actually kind of clever'?

thenewyorktimes416 karma

Lol, yes! When I interviewed several young scammers in Lagos, they told me the hot new thing was the "sugar daddy scam." Essentially they pose on Instagram as a rich older man and message young, attractive women. They tell them they want to be their sugar daddy, and will pay them for their companionship. To hook them, they'll even send a bit of money, like $50, to show they're serious. Later, after building some trust, they will tell the women that they are in an emergency and that they need some money quickly. They tell the women they will be reimbursed for more than what they send. Then they vanish. It's certainly clever -- but it's horrible.

jonglage153 karma

How do you account for Facebook's apparent intransigence about closing obviously bogus, and even criminal, accounts that the Times identified? How could these be claimed to comply with "community standards"?

thenewyorktimes263 karma

Yes, I was honestly surprised that Facebook and particularly Instagram were so poor at taking down obvious fakes when I flagged them through their official online-reporting channels.

Facebook has told me that it is concerned with accidentally removing authentic accounts, so my speculation is that it often errs on the side of caution when users report fake ones. Some of their system is automated and obviously is flawed. In other cases, as far as I can tell, the reports go to employees who are required to deal with large quantities of flagged accounts and can't take the time to investigate each one. To such reports from users, Facebook recently stopped responding in many cases. Instagram still responds with canned language often, but it doesn't give a reason why a given account complies with its rules.

Overall, if someone is reporting dozens of accounts impersonating Gen. Joseph Dunford, the nation's highest ranking military officer, and Instagram is responding that the profiles don't violate its rules -- I'd say something is broken.

Ramboing118 karma

What are some of the things that scammers find frustrating? IE What are some things we can do protect ourselves and make it difficult for them?

thenewyorktimes76 karma

Reporting fake accounts on Facebook, Instagram and other sites is important, although my reporting has shown it isn't always effective. Still, the sites do sometimes take down accounts when you report them, and that can be a headache for scammers, particularly if they've spent a lot of time building up a given account to make it appear authentic, as well as cultivating victims from it.

Slowspines85 karma

Do they have like, classes or seminars they take on how to scam people? How does one even fall into that “job”?

thenewyorktimes81 karma

They congregate in Facebook and WhatsApp groups, where they trade tips, scripts for chatting with victims, fake accounts, Photoshopped images, etc. I explain and show a lot of that in our documentary on military romance scams that came out this week. You can also see a recent screenshot of my WhatsApp here; I had infiltrated about a dozen of these scammer groups.

aminternet12378 karma

How do you effectively help a family member or friend address these issues--both preventative action and helping them to not fall victim to these sorts of traps, but also legal prosecution of those who have scammed them?

thenewyorktimes95 karma

Good question. We all should be encouraging our less tech-savvy friends and relatives to be wary of strangers on the internet. They should be skeptical of unsolicited messages and friend requests from people they don't know, and they should never send money to people they haven't met in real life.

This is all obvious to many of us, but these scammers know the right words to say to manipulate the more vulnerable sections of the population. We do hope that our coverage can help raise awareness about this issue, because education is a key way to combat these sorts of scams. If you have a person close to you who is disbelieving that they are at risk -- or that the stranger they're talking to online really is who they say they are -- then it might help to show them stories like ours.

As for legal prosecution of a scammer who has already been successful: Unfortunately, I wouldn't hold your breath. Many of these criminals are in different countries, and there are far too many of them for law enforcement to make them a priority. Unless the victim lost an enormous amount of money, it is best to move on with your life.

For others who have been scammed, if they sent their money through Western Union, there is a settlement with the FTC that might enable them to recoup some. The deadline has passed, but it still might be possible.

Scrappy200549 karma

Hi, Jack. First of all, I’d like to congratulate you on your work on this; you exceeded all our expectations. A couple of quick questions:

Other than the brief statement included in the piece, has fb addressed this anywhere or released a statement? If not, do you expect them to?

Also, do you plan to keep covering this for future stories?

thenewyorktimes65 karma

Thank you! We appreciate your readership.

Facebook unfortunately did not agree to an interview with us. They sent us a statement, as you saw, as well as several background points, which we summarized in our coverage. I have not heard from them since we published our story and aired our documentary on Sunday.

They posted a video last year warning people of Facebook scams and how to avoid them. They have detailed their efforts and progress to combat fake accounts in a periodic report, though that focuses a lot on automated accounts, or bots, versus the manual variety used by scammers. They've written about software they use to catch scams. And they have also discussed how they try to use facial recognition to stop fake accounts.

And yes, I am fascinated by the issue of fake accounts and plan to keep covering! My email address is [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]) if people have tips.

aintnogood14 karma

My parents are recently retired and while they have always been financially responsible they are old enough now to be at risk for age-associated financial vulnerability. How can I help make sure they stay safe online and don't lose their hard earned savings to scams without coming across as an overbearing child and allowing them to maintain their independece?

thenewyorktimes12 karma

This is a good question. Having them watch our documentary and read our coverage might help! I do think hearing stories of other scam victims can make people realize the predators out there on the internet. This podcast and article on fraud against the elderly is also quite good. I think also being direct with them: Never send money to a stranger on the internet.

starter_kit9 karma

This happens to men as well as women. Do you know if anyone has investigated or written about people (men or women) posing as servicewomen to scam men in the U.S.?

thenewyorktimes23 karma

You're right. There are many female service members who have also struggled with social-media impostors. It's the same scam, just with male victims. I'm not sure if it's been written about. And certainly, these sorts of love scams aren't limited to the military variety. I wrote about celebrity impostors on Facebook and Instagram, and when I reached one scammer for the story, he told me there is another subject of impersonation that's more lucrative than celebrities. "Porn star is better,” he said.

HigginsIsInTheTire8 karma

Why is scamming culture so popular in Nigeria, and what are the patterns that most online scammers follow?

HigginsIsInTheTire8 karma

Also (I was going to pm this but the account is for all NYT content) I've been interested in journalism/investigative reporting for most of my life, however so many people claim that it's a dying art. How were you able to get a job for the NYT, and what steps would you recommend a high school student such as myself take in order to succeed in journalism?

thenewyorktimes34 karma

Hello! I certainly hope it's not a dying art, but that will depend on the public's willingness to pay for journalism. (If you want to support this sort of investigative journalism at The New York Times, the best thing you can do is subscribe.)

I'm pleased to hear you're interested in becoming a reporter! I was lucky that I knew what I wanted early, and I attended Boston University to study journalism. While there, I immediately started reporting for a local newspaper. That led to an internship at The Boston Globe, and then eventually a job at The Wall Street Journal, where I spent nearly seven years. I joined The Times in February 2018.

My advice if you want to be a reporter: Go report! Do it for your high-school paper, and if there isn't one, then start your own website for it. Report for your college newspaper, or a local publication near campus. Read the news regularly. And apply for internships early on. After you get a bit of a start, you shouldn't have to work for free. I hustled for several months at my first local paper before I demanded compensation, and they complied. It's hard work, but it's a wonderful career.

throawayfiremanhat3 karma

How much money do these scammers typically make in a given year?

thenewyorktimes11 karma

From my investigation:
"Three Nigerian men, age 25, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they conned people on Facebook to pay for their education at Lagos State University.

They said they previously made $28 to $42 a month in administrative jobs or pressing shirts. With love hoaxes, the money was inconsistent but more plentiful. One estimated he made about $14,000 in two years; another took in $28,000 in three years."