With long-running romance scam tactics through dating websites already well-known, fraudsters have gone as far as impersonating US soldiers and then seeking lovers on social media, particularly Facebook. Invariably, victims who fall for impostors are asked to make “repeated and ever escalating payments,” US officials say.

In some cases, rather than being asked to send money, victims of romance scams are deployed as money mules whose banks accounts are used to move illicit funds or are talked into opening accounts on behalf of criminals. US law enforcement have recently received complaints of such scams in all 50 states in the US, authorities also say.

Bad rep

The high profile arrests have also triggered extreme reactions among Nigerians at home and abroad, many of whom daily experience the cost of national stereotyping that comes with the well-covered activity of online fraudsters, particularly with the wide spread of email scam attempts.

These costs range from increased scrutiny for visa processes, a lack of trust when attempting to do business internationally and being restricted from using international payment platforms. The fraud stereotype is also often pushed back as an unfair generalization, with successes within Nigeria’s startup and tech ecosystem cited as contrary evidence. A few have even claimed the international criminal behavior is no more than a “hustle”.

But the bigger challenge is with the country’s law enforcement and justice systems which are seen as either being unable to tackle the problem or unwilling to do so.

US officials say the busted ring was led by US-based operatives who facilitated the scams by opening US bank accounts where victims were directed to deposit money. Operatives then laundered the stolen funds through these accounts, ultimately funneling them to Nigeria and pocketing the proceeds. The lead operatives received and laundered at least $6 million in stolen funds, US officials say.

Beyond the arrests that have already been made, the US is working with foreign counterparts to arrest 57 more indicted subjects. And citing previous success with extraditing Nigerian citizens to the US in the past, US district attorny Nicola Hanna says the US will seek to extradite indicted defendants believed to be in Nigeria. The defendants face charges ranging from money laundering to identity theft and will likely face “decades in federal prisons” if convicted.

But that’s likely all the justice victims will ever get. “A large majority of victims do not get their money back ever,” Delacourt noted during the briefing. Alongside the FBI’s investigations to deal with the scams, Delacourt emphasized the need to educate potential targets about contemporary fraud tactics to prevent the scams at source. In his words: “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

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