Like many university students around the world, Christopher Maxwell worked a part-time job to pay the bills.
Unlike most university students, his job involved posing as a U.S. military man online to steal thousands of dollars from older, single American women.
Between 2016 and 2021, Maxwell said he made around $40,000 as a romance scammer. The job came easy to him: “It’s everywhere around you,” said Maxwell, who learned to run online honeypot scams in his native Nigeria. “I grew up knowing it.”
Maxwell has since changed his ways. But as Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, other con artists are looking to cash in on lonely hearts, according to Agustin Lopez, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI San Francisco Division.
“Now that we’re in the day and age of digital media and social networking, it just makes [Americans] all the more targeted,” Lopez told The Standard. “People who normally couldn’t reach into our borders can now, digitally, without ever having to leave their home.”
The numbers speak for themselves. In 2022, 493 victims in the FBI San Francisco division’s territory—the Bay Area and several nearby counties—lost over $46 million to romance scams. Alameda and San Francisco counties led the way, losing over $9.6 and $8.8 million, respectively.
The victims are often women over the age of 60—although Lopez notes they may skew female because men refrain from reporting these crimes due to stigma.
The individual losses are “a substantial amount of money,” Lopez said. “It’s life savings, which is the saddest part.”
There’s some good news: Romance scam losses have gone down this year. In 2021, 742 victims in the San Francisco division’s territory lost $64 million.
And avoiding romance scammers is not difficult if you know what to look out for.
One of the biggest red flags is if the person you’re communicating with is only doing it electronically, Lopez said. Sometimes, they’ll switch to voice communication, but that is rare.
“Every time you ask for a face-to-face meeting, it’s generally agreed to and then, for some reason, it gets canceled,” Lopez said. “They’re always very inventive about the reasons.”
Another warning sign is when a person asks that you switch from the site where you met them to some other means of communication like WhatsApp or Snapchat. Often, they are taking the conversation to an encrypted platform that they believe is more secure and shields them from the scrutiny of law enforcement.
The final—and most glaring red flag—is that they ask for money, access to financial tools like a bank account or something else of value.
“If something is telling you this isn't right, it's probably not right,” Lopez said.
He also recommend that younger people help protect older family members by talking with them about these scams, telling them the warning signs and teaching them to keep their social media secure.
Above all, it’s important to remind them never to share their financial information with people they meet online.
“Those are always good reminders,” Lopez said. “People get caught up in the emotion, and it's hard to see beyond that.”
If you believe you or a loved one is a victim of a romance scam, he recommends contacting the bank immediately. The sooner they know, the higher the likelihood they can get some of the money back.
After that, contact the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and your local police, Lopez said.
Advice From a Former Con Man
Back in Nigeria, Maxwell has abandoned the scammer lifestyle.
In 2021, he met a 61-year-old woman online and scammed her out of $25,000. Initially, Maxwell said, “it was fun taking money from people.”
But then he saw the effects of his scam. Her children stopped talking to her, and she fell into a depression. He felt guilty. Eventually, he confessed his real identity and apologized.
“I thought she was going to block me,” he said. “But she didn’t block me. Instead she spoke to me like a son.”
Maxwell now works as a consultant for Social Catfish, a California-based company that helps people avoid online fraud using reverse search technology. Based on his insider knowledge of the romance scam trade, he offers several tips to identify a scammer.
He said internet users should be wary of people who write messages with lots of typographical errors and not trust anyone who claims to love them, but won’t speak on video chat.
Also, they should be cautious about people who have “military pictures.” Scammers regularly adopt military personas online because some women find them appealing and deployments can offer excuses for why they need money.
“There should be no reason why a military man is asking you for money—he makes money!” Maxwell said. “So anyone asking you for money is a red flag.”