8th Layer Insights 2.13.24
Ep 41 | 2.13.24

How to Scam a Romance Scammer


Perry Carpenter: Hi, I'm Perry Carpenter and you're listening to "8th Layer Insights". 'On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.' The phrase has become almost folklore in our digital age. That little nugget of wisdom first appeared in the "New Yorker" magazine back in 1993, courtesy of cartoonist Peter Steiner. It's a simple image. It features two dogs. One of the dogs sits at a computer, proclaiming his newfound anonymity to the other dog. The caption is those eight simple words. 'On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.' At first glance, it's just a humorous observation on the early Internet's capacity to mask our true identities. But as we delve deeper, we can find that it's the perfect entry point into a much more complex and darker narrative - romance scams. Romance scams are the insidious by-product of the Internet's promise of anonymity. Picture this - someone creates a fake profile weaving together an identity as compelling as it is false. They enter into a relationship with an unsuspecting individual, not for love, but for the oldest motive in the book - financial gain. Here, this freedom to be anyone - or any dog - online morphs into a tool for insidious deception and immense emotional and financial damage. The victims of these scams are often seeking love, companionship, something genuine. What they find instead is betrayal, a financial and emotional pitfall carefully disguised in the trappings of a digital romance. It's a far cry from the playful, boundless exploration envisioned in Steiner's cartoon. [ Music ] My guest for today's show is Kerry Tomlinson. She's a cyber news reporter who works to help people stay smarter and safer online. She spent three decades as a TV news reporter, often going undercover to investigate crimes, winning multiple Emmys and other local, regional, and national journalism awards. In this interview, Kerry shares the fascinating story of how she turned the tables on a romance scammer. So, on today's show, "Scamming a Romance Scammer", how reporter Kerry Tomlinson got a catfisher to sing. Welcome to "8th Layer Insights". This podcast is a multidisciplinary exploration into the complexities of human nature and how those complexities impact everything from why we think the things that we think to why we do the things that we do, and how we can all make better decisions every day. This is "8th Layer Insights", Season 5, Episode 1. I'm Perry Carpenter. Welcome back. If you're listening to this episode around release time, you'll understand the appropriateness of the timing. This episode is being released the day before Valentine's Day and on Valentine's Day we all think about the richness of relationships. But as we know, there's always a dark side. There's people that are willing to take advantage of our hopes, of our dreams, of our wounds, of our needs for connection. And reporter Kerry Tomlinson entered into that fray and explored the darkness of romance scams, turning the table on the scammer. This was a fun interview that I know you're going to enjoy. So let's get straight to it now.

Kerry Tomlinson: My name is Kerry Tomlinson. I'm a cyber news reporter, formerly TV news reporter, for 30 years, 30 long years. Now I do cyber news with the goal of helping people understand what is happening in the cyber world, how it impacts them, and if they can do anything to help prevent terrible things happening to them.

Perry Carpenter: Before we get into the actual topic, I want to ask one general question. As a cyber news reporter and somebody who's done investigative journalism, I think that many people who run awareness campaigns or even who are CISOs and are talking to their board of directors and so on, in a way, we're all a little bit like journalists. We're trying to figure out how to take data that is out there in the world, information and stories out there in the world, and package those in a way that our audience, whether that's end users or whether that's an executive committee or an audit committee or something like that, that they will understand and appreciate and ultimately, you know, maybe take action on. So what are some of the foundational principles that you have absorbed throughout your long career that would give somebody the grounding to understand, interpret, and then create a narrative around these things that are happening out in the world?

Kerry Tomlinson: There are several things. One of the most important things to me throughout my entire career that I do think translates into what we're doing now is being ethical, being completely ethical, and trying to translate what someone is trying to say into a message that is understandable for people, but conveys exactly what that other party wanted to say, or conveys the real state of the situation. So what we're trying to do is not just tell a good story or make something compelling, but make it completely ethically done so that it's done in a way that is true to the message. I think it is very easy, for example, I see press releases come in, I see tons of press releases all day long, and I see press releases come in that misstate things that are going on in the cyber world, either make them more dramatic or do something to twist it to make it look better for them or that particular company. And what has come to me through many years of journalism is the fact that in any way straying from the ethical path is wrong and should not be done. It's just completely wrong. So I bring that to what I do in that I'm trying to explain to people what's happening in a way that is completely real, but also simplifies it in a way and makes it more understandable, but without losing the actual method. And I have no agenda, so my agenda is not to make a product look good or make someone sound good, but to let people know what is actually happening and ways that they can think about it that will help them.

Perry Carpenter: Yeah, actually, that is a really, really good point, because I think that so many of us, whenever we see a story out there and we want to reflect that back to our people in some way, there's always an agenda that we have in why we're selecting that story or how we're presenting the facts of that story. And having a sense of what our ethical obligations are and a sense of transparency behind that changes a little bit. How do you evaluate yourself for your own biases whenever you're selecting the things that you want to investigate and how you want to report on that?

Kerry Tomlinson: I think it's very important to know your own biases and it's probably easier for me after so many years working in journalism to do that. But my goal, I'm very aware of what my goal is, and that is to find helpful information for people and to find things that I can describe in a way that people will understand. So there are many different cyber issues out there, but if I pick something that is very hard for people to understand, then they may give up. They may not continue reading the article. They may not continue watching the video and gosh darn it, I have spent so much time working on these stories that I don't want you to give up on reading that article. I don't want you to give up on watching that video that I've worked so hard to write and produce and edit. I mean, I work very hard sometimes. I'll stay up all night doing these things. I mean, I work really hard. I work seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day doing these things. And I do it because I'm passionate about it. So I guess you could say if I have an agenda, it's to have you actually want to read the story or watch the video, because that is what makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I'm helping people. So I look at stories where I can explain something to people who may not be familiar with cybersecurity or that particular cyber issue, and a story that I can illustrate visually as well. Because I was a TV news reporter, my skills really lie in the production of the video story. That's what I won my Emmys for. I didn't win them for writing print articles, I won them for video stories. So I look for something where I can tell a story in a way that you will enjoy, but that is also completely ethical and completely true, of course, and then something that you might actually enjoy in the process. So those are my biases, just off the top of what I'm looking for. That means I have to be very selective, very selective, because most things in the cyber world are non-visual, unless you count code on a screen. And that's not going to help people understand and learn difficult cybersecurity concepts if they just see code on a screen. So I have to find something that I can illustrate. For example, this is not a story I've done yet, but if I were going to do a story on cookies, that is actually something quite concrete. Really, in real life, they're not concrete, but it is something that you can visually represent and provide helpful information about. So that's really not a great example, but it is an example of the kind of thing that you could speak about a little bit more concretely.

Perry Carpenter: Yeah. So how do you -- and I ask this because I think we all face this challenge whenever we see a story and we want to bring that out to whoever our audience is, with this very ethical and with this very transparent mindset, how do you avoid kind of punching up the drama? Because that's the tendency, is let's make this sound as bad or as big or whatever as we can so that we really grab somebody's attention in a visceral way. If you're really approaching this in an ethical way, how do you avoid not overplaying that in some way?

Kerry Tomlinson: Well, I think it is very important to not have people lose hope about something. And if you make something very dramatic and very scary, then they'll lose hope and they'll just give up and they'll say, There's nothing I can do about this, so what I'm going to do is dismiss this. So you're not doing yourself a favor by making something very scary. I know in the past there's been discussion of, We have to make something scary in order to get money from the board, say. Well, that's not my view of things. That's not what I'm doing. I'm trying to help people and I am trying to I guess ultimately motivate them to think about ways that they can protect themselves from cyber threats. So if I scare them, then they're going to say, Wow, there's nothing I can do so I will just give up. In fact studies have shown that if you scare people too much, especially with cyber stuff that they will turn to other coping mechanisms including religion, including dismissal, including anger. So those are not things that are going to help them perhaps do better when it comes to cyber things. Instead, that's the opposite. So I want to do something that helps them. So I will choose a story, I will choose a situation that if it is scary, we're going to talk about ways that we can solve it. In fact, that is one of the biggest criteria for my stories is, Is it something that the person who is watching this story or reading the story can do something about? Because if it's not, then they're going to get sad. I mean, that's the simple thing, the very simple base emotion there. They will be sad, they will be stressed out, they will be unhappy. How do I know this? Because in TV news, people let you know how they feel about the story. And there can be many different feelings about one story. And one great example that I always give is early on in my TV news career, I was working weekends and the regular programming was preempted by a golf game. And the phone started ringing. I was working in a very small newsroom. This was many, many years ago, very early on. And all the calls that came in were different. Some people were mad because the golf game preempted the regular programming that they wanted to see. Some people were upset that the golf game was too boring and some people were upset that we were not doing some other third thing. So you just -- you realize you can't make everyone happy, but you also need to do things that reach out to many people and can make as many people as possible realize that they can do something about it. So I feel like when people let you know how they feel for many years, you get a sense of what the general audience is going to feel based on what you write and what you show. And I use those skills to create something that is not too scary but is realistic, and provides options for people to make their lives better.

Perry Carpenter: Well, I love that. So then taking that mindset, one of the big investigative bits that you've done is in romance scams. So I'd love for you to tell the story of the romance scam investigation that you did.

Kerry Tominson: This is a highly, highly entertaining story. So romance scams, some people say, Well, romance scams, they've been around forever, surely people are not falling for them. But the truth is people are still falling for them. And in fact, far more than ever before. Part of that is the Internet. Also, part of that was the pandemic, COVID, with people being isolated at home and only being able to connect through computers. And the scammers knew that, and they jumped and they have created a massive industry where they are just sucking millions and millions of dollars from people in many different ways. So when I got a message on social media from someone who was very, very clearly a romance scammer, I decided this was my time to jump in and expose some of the tactics from the inside. So I decided that I would be the victim. So they contacted me under my real name, Kerry Tomlinson, and they started going through these great scammer tactics. And through this, we were able to see exactly how they do the job. So first thing they do, they say, You have a beautiful smile, and then you go, Oh my gosh, that's wonderful. Then they have the sob story, which is, Oh, my wife died, she had a heart attack, and my son was injured in a car crash, don't you feel sorry for me? And so then they get the sympathy. And then from there, they have basically scripted tactics that they follow so that they know exactly what works. In this case, the fellow used pictures of a singer. So he stole someone's pictures and he created a profile using this person's pictures but with a different name. And I saw those pictures and I said, those pictures look so familiar. Did the reverse search, found out it was a well-known singer that the scammer was using pictures of. So we knew right away. We knew right away that this guy was a fake. But because he was using a singer's picture, I knew that ultimately one of the big goals of this was to get him to sing. Because if I could get him to sing, that would be basically the proof that we needed that he wasn't the actual singer. And ultimately, through many, many months of work, I was able to make it happen.

Perry Carpenter: So describe some of the tactics. You talked about their initial approach. How do they keep it going for that long? And what are some of their goals out of that? I know a lot of it is financial and they're trying to milk that, but what different tactics and ways of keeping that going were you seeing?

Kerry Tomlinson: So one of the keys to all of it is that what they do, people think, Oh, these are romance scammers. They want you to fall in love with them. Yes, that is true. But what they also want is for you to look on them as a constant companion. So they constantly ask you, How are you doing? How are you feeling? What are you eating? Have you had lunch yet? Have you had dinner yet? Are you tired? Are you feeling well? Because through this, through constant messaging, they can get you to rely on them as sort of your digital partner in life. And what we see with some of these romance scams is it's not just single people, it is sometimes married people or people with long-term partners who end up falling for these romance scams because they may be lonely. They may be depressed, maybe their partner is going through a difficult time and perhaps doesn't have as much bandwidth to pay attention to them. So they may feel a little neglected. Maybe they themselves are going through something stressful. So even if their partner is providing that needed support, they need more at that time. Maybe they should be going to therapy. Maybe they have that kind of difficulty. But what is much easier than going to therapy, or talking to your partner in many cases, is to become friends with this person who will give you everything you want. They give you everything. They will listen to you. They will talk to you on the phone. They will let you pour your heart out. They will let you complain about everything. They will let you cry. And they will always say, You are right. You are right. You are right. So that is what is more insidious than the love portion of it. It's the fact that they will message you 24 hours a day. They will talk to you on the phone for hours if needed so that you feel supported.

Perry Carpenter: So I'm wondering, just from a practical business model for romance scammers, if they're investing that much time with a single mark. And you may or may not have looked into this, but I'm wondering how many of these types of people that they're trying to manage at the same time.

Kerry Tomlinson: Oh, yes. It's not just a single mark. They really -- I mean, although they do make lots of money, they wouldn't make enough money. So in some cases, and it's not true in every single case, but usually from what we've seen, there is sort of an overseer who runs a stable of perhaps younger folks or more inexperienced people who follow the scripts. And each of those individual people in the stable, so to speak, will be running six, seven, eight, nine, ten, really as many victims as they can at the same time. And since the script is the same, they don't need to think outside the box, really, until the end, until they're not getting paid, and then they start getting a little bit more creative. But one of the great things that they do to make their jobs easier is they send the same love messages to each person each day. And they get them from various sites on the internet. You can look them up. They're things like "love messages for your boyfriend" or "romantic messages for your wife", things like that. There are these sites which sometimes seem a little shady in -- of themselves. However, they'll have maybe 50 different messages that you could send, romantic messages that you could send to your boyfriend or girlfriend. They just grab those and then, say they're working 10 people at once, you just grab that message for the day and boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, you send it to all 10. Then you do not have to worry about having to come up with something new, and also you are less likely to repeat yourself because if you're doing them to everyone at once, then the next day you do the next 1 through 50 and then you start over again with a different website. And that way you don't have to keep track of what you've already said to the various people. It's just all done in sort of a cookie cutter way.

Perry Carpenter: I have never thought about that. That is really, really interesting because it does help them deal with the scalability issue of this. So when you really get down to it and you've got kind of the person that's managing everybody and then the folks working in the stables, as you put it, what are some of the leverage points where they get what their ultimate goal is, which, you know, I've got to think it's economic in some way. How quickly before they start to get a little bit panicked because each of these people may be working towards some kind of quota, for lack of a better word, before the pressure starts to become so great on them that they either have to cut or they start applying a lot of pressure on whoever their mark is?

Kerry Tomlinson: It's really quite variable. In my case, it took him about three weeks and I was waiting, waiting, waiting for him to lower the boom and actually show me what the scam was, what is the scam. So he didn't ask for money for weeks and weeks, but he did lay out the story. So the story in this fellow's particular case, he called himself Derek Herman, by the way, was that he was working for ExxonMobil on an oil platform, very, very common scenario that they use. He was widowed, of course, because his wife had died of a heart attack at the age of 36. You know, it happens. And he was, he said, unable to leave his oil platform because, with his contract, he had to stay on for eight more months, and he actually could not leave the platform for any reason in those eight months, which of course is not realistic. If you talk to people who actually work on oil rigs, they have to leave much sooner than that for safety reasons, because it is stressful and it is tiring to work on these rigs. So you can't stay longer than a certain period of time. I've heard all kinds of different things. Someone suggested 30 days was one, couple weeks or something, but it's not eight months. But he says that is the situation. If you don't ask questions, then he gets away with it. If you do ask questions, if you say things like, Well, is that really true? You would really stay on an oil platform for eight months? Then he'll come up with an answer. And if you start to question him too much, then he will start to bully you and get angry at you. Now, if you go along with it, he knows he has you. He knows he can bully you because you won't do anything about it. He knows you're hooked. So it's quite wise for him to try that. Now, this happens with male victims as well. So in this particular case, we're talking about a male, we don't even know if the scammer was male, although the voice on the phone was male, but a male identity trying to scam a female. So when we talk about this, I don't want people to think, Oh, he, well, it always happens to women. Absolutely not. Many, many men are victims. Many women are victims. We often hear about the women because it seems like they may be more willing to share their stories about what has happened, but that's not always the case. So his thing was that he couldn't get off the oil platform, but he continues to be my companion, as I discussed. And when he truly feels that I am hooked, he sort of laid some things out to see if I'm hooked and I have fallen for it, then he lowers the boom. And that is the only way that he can get off the platform to have us meet in person when he will take us to Paris and Rome for a beautiful romantic trip --

Perry Carpenter: Of course.

Kerry Tomlinson: The only way is for me to apply for a special permit, a family leave permit. And I have to say that I'm his fiance. So then of course the whole thing is, Oh, your fiance, are you thinking that we're actually going to get married? Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. So then they throw out the marriage card. And if you are in love, and if you are needing a companion, this person is it for you, and they're for you 24 hours a day, they will do anything for you, then yes, you believe it. So you apply for the permit, and then you get approved for the permit. And another person from the company, quote unquote, gets onboard to help you with the application process and make sure you do it right. You're approved, and then you get the message that along with that, you need to pay about $2,000 for the permit. So then the scam goes on from there.

Perry Carpenter: And that's after you've gone through the paperwork and you feel invested and everything else, so you get to the point where they will not then fully accept it until you've paid, or is it the other way around? You pay and then you fill it out?

Kerry Tomlinson: You're fully approved and then you get the message at the very end saying for this to actually go through, you have to --

Perry Carpenter: Yeah.

Kerry Tomlinson: -- pay the $2,000. Of course, you go back to the boyfriend, the digital boyfriend and you say, Oh my gosh $2,000 and it's his job at that point to talk you into it. Of course, he believes he's gotten you to that point where you're ready for it. And then he talks you into it, and then you go from there, and of course then they get more and more and more money from you as things go on.

Perry Carpenter: And so there's always some hiccup where they need more money or some situation where for whatever process that you're trying to go through, where you have to pay. Is it always leading up to something that's a bigger payoff, or is it generally these smaller, well, $2,000 is a decent amount of money, but is it more of these smaller things, or are they aiming for something that's in the tens, twenties, or hundreds?

Kerry Tomlinson: They are aiming to take everything that you have, absolutely everything, your entire life savings, and what they can get you to borrow from other people. That's another big thing they do. They have you ask family and friends, get loans from banks, loans from anywhere you can get it. So they will take everything. $2,000 is great to start with because it's sort of a test amount. Will the victim pay this amount and how easy is it to get them to pay this amount? And do they mention how much money they have? For example, Well, $2,000 is a lot of money. I could say, you know, I have $50,000 in my bank account, so I guess I can go ahead and pay it, and then they get more clues. So it's a really good one to start out with, and then they push it and push it. Now, interestingly enough, what they want to do is constantly delay it and drag it out and get more money. I did the same to them. I turned the tables so that I never actually paid the money.

Perry Carpenter: Good.

Kerry Tomlinson: But for three months I dragged it out with a series of very entertaining excuses so that ultimately he became very angry and he -- well, that was the big blow-up moment where he said some very unkind things.

Perry Carpenter: So tell us about some of the excuses and then the fallout from that.

Kerry Tomlinson: What he wanted the victim to do was use an app called Barter, which is actually an app that is used a lot in countries in Africa. So he was claiming to be an American from Texas working in the North Sea for ExxonMobil, and yet he was using an app from Africa, or that was used a lot in Africa. So that was of course one of the clues, but if you're in love, then you may not see that red flag. And what I saw was that he wanted us to send the money to someone who was not connected to ExxonMobil or to any of the companies that he claimed he was connected with. It was just a woman's name. So I said that the app wasn't working. I kept saying I was trying and he would say, Send me a screenshot. So I would send him a screenshot that looked like I was trying to pay, but I was unable to pay. What I wanted -- my goal with that was not just to delay, but to get from him another kind of information. So I asked him for information so I could wire him the money. Because wiring these days goes through banks. It's no longer Western Union. Now you can do it through banks. That is a great way to do it because then he would have to give me a bank name and a bank account number and the name of the person with that account. And through that, we would be able to at least help the people behind those bank accounts. Because clearly he would be giving me bank accounts people that he could control. Either these were other victims of his or of the groups who needed help. So if we report what's happening, if I report what was happening, since I was doing this myself, if I reported it, then those people could get help if they're victims. If they are so-called money mules, in other words, people working with the scammers, letting them use their accounts, then they would be turned in and their accounts would be shut down so they wouldn't be able to continue doing this for a while. Obviously, they start up again and keep going. But there's more of a chance that these people would be busted, stopped. At least the infrastructure, that part of the infrastructure would be taken down. So I asked him for somewhere to wire it to. He gave me the information. I went through the process of reporting it to police, to law enforcement, to the bank. I tried to contact the victim, which wasn't always easy. A lot of them were older people, so people in their 80s. Some of them were actually in a vegetative state. That's what the family told me. That's the phrase they used, so I don't know what else to say there. And some of them were very old in their 80s. So that was a very important part of it. And each time I would delay the issue, come up with various reasons that it wouldn't work. At one point I had someone call, insinuating, not actually saying, but insinuating that they were affiliated with the bank and that there were some problems. And each time as I dragged it out, then of course the account would be shut down and then he'd have to get me another account. So I was able to use that for quite some time. And then at a certain point, he really put his foot down. So at that point, I had to say, I got COVID.

Perry Carpenter: So you mentioned that all the delay tactics resulted in a blow up. I'd love to hear about that. And then also this goal that you had about trying to get him to sing. Did you say, Hey, I found your profile, you're a singer, would you sing for me? Or did you find another way of trying to get this person to serenade you?

Kerry Tomlinson: These are great questions. To get to the blow up, we have to get into the COVID situation.

Perry Carpenter: After the break, more of our interview with Kerry Tomlinson. [ Music ] Welcome back.

Kerry Tomlinson: To get to the blow up, we have to get into the COVID situation. At that time, when you got COVID, you still couldn't run around and go to the bank and do things like that. So I was able to say, Well, I can't go to the bank. And I said I was having trouble breathing. And he said, Well, why don't you get on a ventilator to help you breathe? Because he wanted me to get better so I could go to the bank and wire him the money. And I said, Well, they only have ventilators at hospitals. I can't get one at home. And he said, Well, why don't you go to the hospital? So that was the key. I sent him a message and said, I'm going to the hospital now because of COVID and I'm not sure when I'm coming back. And then I let things sit for a really long time. And he kept messaging every day, every day, every day, where are you, where are you, where are you, getting more and more frustrated. It finally got to the point where I was out of the hospital and I said, Hey, I'd really like to talk to you on the phone. We arranged a phone call and he called and he said, Well, you know, the reason I haven't been able to pay this is because my bank account is still frozen in the US, otherwise I would have paid it when you were in the hospital. And I said, Excellent, there's something I want to tell you. It's something I'm feeling really deep inside. Do you promise not to hang up when I tell you what it is? And he said, Oh, yes, yes, yes. And I said, Why are you using pictures of a well-known singer in the United States and pretending to be him? And he said, Oh, no, no, no, I'm not doing that. And I said, Yes, yes, you are. Why are you doing that? And he hung up, even though he promised that he wasn't going to hang up.

Perry Carpenter: Right, yeah.

Kerry Tomlinson: Right. And most people end it there, most scammers end it there, but he decided that he would start chatting with me again. They like to use Google Chat to do their scams. He would start chatting and he said various things to the tune of, You will die of a terrible cancer.

Perry Carpenter: Wow.

Kerry Tomlinson: You -- your brain will swell, your kidneys will swell, you will get a bone cancer, you will get a liver cancer. You are a horrible liar. And I said, But if liars get bone and brain cancer, then do you need to be worried as well about the lies that you've told? And he became very angry and said all kinds of things, but ultimately he didn't have any good comebacks to the questions.

Perry Carpenter: Yeah.

Kerry Tomlinson: So he finally stopped. And then he reported the chat to Google and said that I was the scammer and that he was the victim. So Google shut down my ability to use that account.

Perry Carpenter: Wow.

Kerry Tomlinson: I went to Google and said, Hey, why don't you look at the chat, read the chat and see who the scammer is. And they immediately restored my account. So it all worked out. But he was very unhappy.

Perry Carpenter: Yeah, I can understand that. So where does the getting him to sing bit come in?

Kerry Tomlinson: Yeah, so he made it easy for me because he actually sent a video of the singer. This singer is very popular on social media, has many, many, many followers, and he, the scammer, simply grabbed a video clip of the real singer singing and sent it to me. [ Music ] And I said, Did you just record that for me just right now on the oil rig? And he said, Oh, yes, yes, right here on the oil rig, strumming my guitar and singing I wrote this or I sang this just for you. So he made it very easy because he's the one who initiated the concept of singing. So then there was a point -- I had told him that I had a son and I wanted him to have a phone call with my son and I had a volunteer who was 13 years old play the son. And he began to say things to the son that were actually hugely damaging. He said, I will become your father. I will be your new father. I will take you in. I will take you in as my son and I will love you just as I love your mother. Now think of it, in reality, if this were a case of a single mother and a 13-year-old son, he would be doing terrible psychological damage --

Perry Carpenter: Yeah.

Kerry Tomlinson: -- to this boy. It was really horrible. And at that point I thought, You know what, you cannot do this. So I launched into the plan at that moment. And I said, My son really wants to hear you sing for him. My son, if you were going to be his new father, he would really like to hear you sing. You're such a lovely singer. You have such a wonderful voice. Could you sing for him? And he said, Oh, no, no, no, I'm not going to do that. And I said, Well, my son is very disappointed and he is telling me not to continue with this relationship if you won't sing for him. And through that series of off-the-cuff ideas, I'm just rolling with it, he did actually sing a song. [ Music ] And it is quite entertaining, especially if you compare it to the real singer and then the song, or at least part of the song that he sang to my volunteer son.

Perry Carpenter: How does this all wrap up? And then I guess what are the takeaways for everyday people that are kind of potential victims or potential targets for these kind of scams?

Kerry Tomlinson: Well, the way it wraps up in many ways it's sad because I wanted him to of course be caught, because though he didn't get money from me, clearly he was talking to many people at once and I could tell sometimes he would mix up his messages so you knew he wasn't entirely sure who he was talking to at the moment. So I wanted him to be stopped, stopped from scamming people. But the reality is most of these people are not stopped. Most of them are in other countries, and although this one apparently came out of Africa, there are many from many other countries. It's certainly not just that continent, certainly not many other continents and countries and people involved of all different kinds. And because it's so far away, it is very difficult for law enforcement to do something about it unless they have co-conspirators in the U.S. More and more, these romance scammers are using co-conspirators in the U.S., using helpers. And in fact, a new investigation that I'm working on is a case out of Atlanta where a number of people have been arrested, three people have been arrested for conspiring with scammers overseas. So they are finally able to get to some of these people, but they never do actually seem to get to the people overseas. It's just the people in the U.S. So the scammer in my case will likely not get caught under these particular circumstances, although in the future there is good hope. Certainly though, we were able to destroy part of the scammer infrastructure and they would have to go and rebuild that. More work for them, less time to scam other people.

Perry Carpenter: So then you probably put this in the piece that you put together. What did you learn, and then what do you want everybody on the other side of the podcast, the people that are listening to your story, what do you want them to learn and take away?

Kerry Tomlinson: Right. And the takeaway for them is really the most important thing. One of the things that I learned is that the scammers are not daunted when they use -- when they steal photographs from people, even though the victims will then go on to post pictures online and say, These are the photos they're using. And even when the people whose photos are being stolen post things online, many, many messages saying people are using my pictures to scam you, even then new victims by the hundreds will fall for the scammers. And lest you think these are people who are not educated or not smart, they in many cases are. I mean, it takes all kinds, but these are often smart people who have an emotional deficit, some depression or some stress or some loneliness, and the scammers know it, and they know how to play the game. The most important thing that I want people to take away from this is to know the tactics that the scammers use, like some of the ones that we've talked about, and to not trust any connection on the internet until you can do some verification. And then third and most importantly, tell other people about this connection you have, this companionship, this romance you have online. Because if you tell other people and their reaction is one that tells you you're doing something wrong, then you need to actually listen to that. And I myself have helped many times with people who saw the story, the investigation that I did, and then they would contact me and say, A friend of mine is talking about this new guy she just met, or, A friend of mine is talking about this new woman that he just met. Can you tell us more? Can you look into it? What does it sound like? And if you catch it early enough, the victims will actually cut off the relationship. If it goes on for too long, then the victim has already paid money in many cases, and once they start paying money, they don't want to believe that they have sent good money off to bad things, and they will cling to it more and more and more and more, and will continue often to send money until even way beyond when their savings are gone, when they've lost their home, when they've lost their job, and even then they will say things like, You just wait, you'll see that this is a real relationship and any moment, he or she will come walking through that door.

Perry Carpenter: Wow. The detached, no emotional way of talking about it would just say that, you know, that's the sunk cost fallacy at work. But the sunk cost fallacy at work is these people's livelihoods and the relationships that they're potentially burning so that they can keep this one bit of hope going. Because I'm sure that they have friends and family members who have expressed concern that after they continue to rebuff them over and over and over again, it just causes strain in that relationship. And they're essentially making the decision to sever one for the sake of this bigger hope that they have.

Kerry Tomlinson: Right. And there's something even deeper than that and more insidious, and that is once the victims admit to themselves that this has happened, there's something far worse than losing the money and far worse than the stress in relationships.

Perry Carpenter: Yeah.

Kerry Tomlinson: And that is the humiliation, the utter devastation and humiliation, that they were in love with someone who wasn't real, that the entire relationship was completely false, that they were led along and that they were willingly led along, and they willingly gave money. The humiliation is so much that some people choose not to continue.

Perry Carpenter: Wow.

Kerry Tomlinson: Some people feel that it is too much. Some people do not leave their houses for years, only perhaps going out to get food. They leave their jobs. They go into therapy and still years later they are devastated. So you can imagine, which are you more likely to do? Admit that this thing has happened to you and that you gave away all of your money and feel as if you wanted to end your life, or would you continue on believing that this relationship is real and that someday this person will come for you? And many people choose the latter because it is less painful. And I do want to say if anyone out there is thinking that they are at a point where they may want to end their lives, I encourage them to please call, talk to a family member or a friend or of course the crisis line, because this is very real.

Perry Carpenter: Yeah. And super sobering because I think sometimes when it comes to things like romance scams, it can be something that people play with a little bit and they joke about, but the reality is that there's a lot of pain involved in those relationships, or supposed relationships that people get involved in and a lot of heartache. And somebody's taking advantage of somebody who has an emotional need and they're putting a lot of hope and faith and finances in that relationship only to find out that it was fake the entire time, which would be really, really devastating for anybody involved.

Kerry Tomlinson: Right. This is really important. It is very common and very popular for people to denounce romance scam victims as idiots and words far worse than that. And part of that is because you on the outside can see everything. And so from the outside, it's very easy to see when the scams are and where the scams are. On the inside, it's much harder. And this scam wouldn't be raking in billions of stolen dollars if it weren't so successful. However, it's very popular, it's very common for people to say, I would never fall for that. But in 30 years of TV news, what I learned is the very same people who would see a story, an investigation that I did and said, Oh, that victim is an idiot, I would never fall for that, those same people would then contact me a month, a year, five years later after having fallen victim to a scam. So with that, there is a scam for everyone. There is always a scam for everyone. So if you choose to say that someone is stupid for falling for a scam, no worries, a scam will be coming your way. It just happens to everyone. So it's easy to say from the outside, That's ridiculous. But on the inside, it will happen to you, and you will understand what it is like to be a victim.

Perry Carpenter: So as we wrap up, are there any current ways that romance scammers are trying to lure their victims in today? Has that changed at all? I guess, what trends are you seeing?

Kerry Tomlinson: One of the very common ways now that scammers are getting people through romance scams is they're talking about investing in cryptocurrency. And this is happening with people of all ages. So you see an attractive person on, say, a dating site or they contact you on social media and say they're interested in you. Or sometimes they'll just text random numbers until they find someone who answers and they'll strike up a conversation. And then they will work in the concept that either they themselves actually are quite successful and have a large amount of money, or some family member of theirs is very successful and has a large amount of money. And why? Of course, you begin to ask why, because you've been talking to this person for some hours or weeks or a month or several months, and they say, Well, my aunt or uncle or whomever my family member is is actually very good at cryptocurrency. They're great at investing and they maybe drop some fancy names, some fancy companies that this person has worked for, and they say, I will be glad to help you make money as well. And it's very tempting. They have you invest money either the app itself, the cryptocurrency app that they have you work with is fake, or it's a real app, but they have you deposit the money into their account instead of actually investing it into something. And then ultimately they steal money. So that way you -- in fact, it's better off if you don't know anything about cryptocurrency. They will teach you, they say, how to do it. So you think you're investing in cryptocurrency, they may even allow you to withdraw some of the money to show, Hey, look I've been making money. But if you ever tried to actually withdraw any significant amount of money, then you learn that it's a fake. This is highly successful. They're getting millions and millions of dollars from people this way.

Perry Carpenter: Each of us stands at a critical place in our digital lives. As the Internet evolves, becoming more integrated into our daily routines, the lessons from these types of scams resonate louder. They serve as a stark reminder of the importance of digital literacy and of approaching online interactions with a critical eye. They underscore the need to protect our personal information, to recognize the fine line between connection and exploitation. The Internet, for all its vastness and opportunities for connection, also harbors shadows. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. This is no longer just a punchline. It's a cautionary tale reminding us of the importance of vigilance in all of our online interactions. In the digital world where anyone can be anything, it's up to us to peel back the layers, to seek out authenticity, and to protect ourselves, our hearts, and the loved ones in our lives. And with that, thanks so much for listening, and thank you to my guest, Kerry Tomlinson. Be sure to check out her YouTube channel for some great cybersecurity-related investigative reporting and tips. I've loaded up the show notes with more information about Kerry, as well as all the relevant links and references to the information that we covered today. If you haven't yet, please go ahead and subscribe or follow wherever you like to get your podcasts. Oh, and I'd also really appreciate it if you tell someone else about the show. That really helps us grow. If you want to connect with me, feel free to do so. You'll find my contact information at the very bottom of the show notes for this episode. This episode was written, recorded, sound designed and edited by me, Perry Carpenter. Cover art for "8th Layer Insights" was designed by Chris Machowski at Ransomwear.net, that's W-E-A-R, and Mia Rune at MiaRune.com. The "8th Layer Insights" theme song was composed and performed by Marcus Moskatt. Until next time, I'm Perry Carpenter, signing off.