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Foreign scammers prey on vulnerable loners

Feb 27,2019
A growing number of Koreans are falling prey to online swindles perpetrated by scammers posing as friendly foreigners and love interests.

According to data from the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) international crime division, the number of internet-based fraud cases affecting Korean victims has almost doubled from 36 in 2017 to 71 in 2018.

In 22 of those cases last year, victims were swindled out of a total of around 1.28 billion won ($1.15 million). One female victim living in South Chungcheong said she was contacted by a man last April on Facebook named James Williams, who said he was a U.S. soldier currently stationed in Libya.

Feeling no reason to decline the friend request, the woman began an online relationship with the person. Williams consistently sent her pictures and videos of the base he supposedly worked at in Libya along with his photo ID badge that seemed to prove he was part of the U.S. military.

One day, Williams told her he had received $3 million from the Libyan government as a rebate of some sort, but said he was having trouble transferring the money back home.

He then asked her if she could pay $7,000 to his friend’s account as a banking transfer fee on his behalf. Williams promised to pay her back with interest once he got the money.

The woman sent the money, believing a U.S. soldier would not deceive her. She was wrong: Williams never replied after that day.

A majority of the scams resemble this one, in which swindlers pose as U.S. soldiers or wealthy figures who try to build trust with the victim before asking for money, which they often say is deposit insurance in return for a greater sum.

Other swindlers pretend to be people looking for love, wooing vulnerable loners over an extensive period only demanding hefty sums of money at the end. This is commonly known as a romance scam.

Officials at the NIS believe the actual number of victims of such scams may be much higher, since many cases go unreported.

“Most of the victims of such crimes belong to an educated class capable of English communication and are often reluctant to report their cases in fear of their identities being exposed,” said an NIS officer.

According to the NIS, swindlers usually approach their victims through such popular social media platforms as Facebook or Instagram where they send a friend request after reviewing the potential victim’s background.

Frequently posing as Korean-Americans or foreigners interested in Korea, the swindlers attempt to build a friendly relationship with the user over a period of time, which may be up to several months.

The real culprits behind these false identities are often of Nigerian or Liberian origin, and they operate from places such as Thailand and India where they have access to extensive IT networks at low costs.

“Some of our intelligence suggests Nigerians residing in Korea may also be involved,” the NIS agent said.

Experts warn that to evade such scams, social media users should avoid accepting friend requests from strangers. “This scam plays on social media users’ desires to increase their number of online friends and followers,” said Korea University Prof. Kim Seung-joo, who teaches online information security.

Kim warned even if one doesn’t communicate with the potential swindlers, just accepting a friend request from such a person could instill a false perception of security in one’s other online friends that may put them at risk of falling for a scam.

BY CHOI SUN-WOOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]