Michigan man's identity stolen by Nigerian romance scammers

A Michigan model's identity was stolen by Nigerian romance scammers during the COVID-19 pandemic and was used to trick victims into sending money. 

"I’m amazed at the audacity of some of these people," said Tom Ersting. "There is a group of people in Nigeria who sit around a table and pick up identities and then they just mass-market this person." And suddenly Ersting found himself thrust into the scam that lures women on dating sites with his attractive photos ultimately to hand over their money. 

"It's out of control. I get 10 to 15 messages a day from various sources," he said. 

Tom says from women from all over the world came to him with pleas like this: "'Please tell me who you are. I've been talking to this person and I'm about to give them a thousand dollars.'"

He says it’s heartbreaking, breaking the news about what's really going on.

"During COVID this has exploded. I am getting twice as many messages during COVID because people are lonely and they need that connection," he said. "The one that hit me the worst was a woman who gave a guy her credit card number to a guy who was in a financial crunch and he just maxed out her credit card at $32,000 just like that."

"Doesn't matter if they’re educated or not educated. We’ve talked to doctors and laywers that have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars," said David McClellan. He started SocialCatfish.com as a resource for victims. A catfish is is an online romance scammer.

He says he sees a 50/50 split of female and male targets. 

"Maybe they were married for a long period of time and then were divorced or widowed and they don’t have any experience dating online," McClellan said.

According to David, last year Americans lost $201 million to romance scammers. This year it's expected to be much higher. 

"If anybody asks you for money online, just move on. That's the first step. Just really move on. If we stop giving these scammers money then we stop the problem. They'll do something else," McClellan said. 

He also shared some tips, which you can see below, on not falling victim to a scam. 

5 tricks romance scammers are using during COVID

  1. Cannot Meet Because of COVID: The hallmark of a catfish scammer is to come up with excuses why they cannot meet, such as pretending to be in the military overseas. The pandemic gives them a built-in excuse not to meet. Beware.
  2. Need Money for a COVID Emergency: Once they form an emotional connection with lonely victims, they ask for money saying they are sick and need help with treatment, or are low on food, water, and other supplies. These are lies, as people who have never met do not ask you for money for an emergency, they would rely on family and friends.  
  3. They Are Overly Sweet and Confessing Love Quickly: If you are stuck in your house with limited contact with your loved ones, then someone else’s sweet words can win you over, especially when they are confessing their undying love for you. Beware of someone who says overly sweet things that are too good to be true.
  4. Moving too Fast: Scammers are using the extra time at home to chat more often so they can build trust and drain your bank account faster. Beware if your relationship begins to move too fast.
  5. Do Not Want to Video Chat:The oldest excuse in the book… they cannot video chat with you because their video camera is supposedly “broken”, or they do not have the best access to Wi-Fi. These are red flags. The real reason they do not want to video chat with you is that they are pretending to be the person you see in the pictures and are not actually that person.

5 ways to avoid becoming a victim

  1. Never Give Money: Do not give anyone you meet online money, no matter the reason.
  2. Do not Give Personal Information:  Scammers can use basic information to commit identity fraud, get access to your banks and steal your money. 
  3. Take Things Slow: If you like someone online, do not let them rush you. Nigerian romance scammers will be pushy about falling in love right away. If that is the case, know something is not right.  
  4. Meet or Video Chat: Do not form a relationship with someone who will not video chat with you or meet you in person. 
  5. Compare Against the Published Nigerian Scam Playbook: Compare what they are saying to the playbook to see if it matches at all. If what the person sent you matches word-for-word to the text in the playbook or is similar to it, then that is a major red flag. This means they are probably copying and pasting everything they are telling you from a scammer’s playbook and will try to steal your money later.