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Anatomy of a Romance Scam

I Very Love You!

Anatomy of a Romance Scam

When I was preparing to give overseas dating a try back in 2017, I heard many stories and warnings about Email romance scams. People (typically men) spend hours corresponding with someone overseas who they believe is a romantic interest. In reality, the person they’re talking to is not who they say they are, and they are most certainly not in love. In fact, these are often sophisticated operations—ran like call centers—involving teams of Email writers who make money ‘stringing’ victims along with hopes of romance, companionship, future visits, and intimacy.

Some of these sites claim to be reputable ‘matchmaking’ services who charge ‘translation’ and other fees for the ‘privilege’ of Emailing their ‘members’. In reality, there’s no actual relationship. The goal is to just keep ‘leading victims on’ as long as possible (typically through Email) in order to extract ‘fees’ and ‘subscription’ charges.

Another common romance scam is to request large sums of money from unsuspecting and well-meaning victims. These scammers exploit their victim’s generosity and desire to be helpful by feigning sudden ‘emergencies’ or illnesses that they need urgent financial help with. Another common tactic is to exploit the victim’s loneliness and prey on their desire for companionship by promising to visit or travel together. They claim to be madly in love and dying to visit soon, but in desperate need of money to complete the travel booking. Of course, once the victim sends the money via the scammer’s instructions (usually via Western Union), all communication ends and the overseas ‘lover’ is never heard from again.

There are a variety of variations on this basic theme: the new online girlfriend/boyfriend promising to meet you, the fiancée excited to finally get married, or even just the friendly penpal that wants to visit your country. Regardless of the ‘flavor’, the con has similar warning signs or ‘red flags’. According to Western Union’s fraud prevention and education resources,[1] these include:

  • You meet online and the ‘relationship’ progresses quickly, with email and phone conversations. You may trade pictures, too, but haven’t yet met in person
  • Your ‘love interest’ begins asking you to wire money—they need airfare to come meet you, their child has a medical emergency, they need money to expand their business in a foreign country. The requests come with promises of repayment.
  • You meet on a dating website, but the other person urges you to leave that site and communicate through social media, personal email or instant messaging.
  • The other person moves quickly, professing love too soon in the relationship.
  • He or she sends a photograph that looks too good to be true, as if it comes from a glamour magazine.

I’ve identified some other ‘red flags’ through my own experiences (including the one I’m writing about now), and in talking to friends and acquaintances who have encountered romance scams as well:

  • ‘Happy coincidences’ start piling up. The situation sounds ‘too good to be true’, even to the point of being barely plausible
  • Some sort of ultimatum is presented, and any other solution to the scammer’s ‘financial dilemma’ is untenable to them—only sending money immediately can fix their ‘crisis’. Any other suggestion just won’t do and is met with disdain, sadness, anger, or ‘disappointment’.
  • Emotional manipulation, stroking the victim’s ego, and playing to their desires and insecurities.
  • Attempts to ‘guilt’ the potential victim into their demands—comments along the lines of, “I can’t believe you won’t help me. I love you! Don’t you love me too?”

I recently had the ‘pleasure’ of corresponding with a scammer, and once I started to suspect it was a scam, I decided to ‘play along’ with the scam and document it here. I was really fascinated by how clever it was in many ways. The scammer was patient, built rapport, and had a carefully-crafted ‘story’ that seemed plausible (at least at first). I often hear people say things like, “I can’t believe anyone falls for stuff like that.” I used to think that. But, I have to admit: Even I thought this person was genuine and sincere initially, and I was actually hoping that they were real. They seemed kind, thoughtful, and really interested in me.

However, despite all the cunning and patience, the classic warning signs were present and started to pile up.

Before I give a run-down of the messages, I would like to remind readers that at times, it might seem like I’m being very cruel to a girl who was really excited to find ‘love’ online. However, while reading the sappy bits, bare in mind that the actual person behind the keyboard could have very well been a man—perhaps even multiple people ‘working’ on me. I decided to lead the scammer(s) on and waste their time since they were doing the same to me—and trying to take my money. At times, I anguished over whether or not I was actually being cruel to a real, sweet girl in Russia (despite almost every red flag being apparent). This just goes to show how these scams are designed to really tug at your heartstrings and manipulate your emotions.

The Messages

All messages are archived here. What follows is a selection of excerpts from various messages with my comments. Click on the message date or excerpt link to view the full message.

Years ago, I enjoyed meeting people online and engaging in language and culture exchange on a site called interpals.net. I’ve sworn off most social media and online dating sites, but having found myself with a lot of free time stuck at home due to COVID-19, I decided to create an account and see if it had changed much in 13 years. Almost immediately after creating a new account, I received a message from a profile with a pretty picture. We bantered back and forth for a bit and then ‘Yulia’[2] suggested that we move the conversation to Email.

From Yulia: October 24, 2020 8:36 AM
Maybe we will contact you by e-mail, I’m just at work and it’s uncomfortable for me to write here and I don’t like this site, I want to delete my profile here. I will be glad to continue our communication by email. I can’t even share photos on this site. What do you think about this?↩︎

Now, this alone isn’t a big deal. I actually prefer Email myself for longer correspondence, and the site interface is dated and a bit cumbersome at times. But, wishing to move the conversation to Email is a potential warning sign.

Scammers prefer Email, because it is easier to manage their bulk scamming operations from one source, rather than having to maintain multiple conversations across various sites. They often set up fake accounts on various dating and social sites, trawl it for potential victims, then remove the accounts once conversation has moved to Email. That’s exactly what seems to have happened in this case.

'Yulia's' account was only a couple of days old with very little activity, and I noticed that it had been deleted soon after we moved to Email.

‘Yulia’s’ account was only a couple of days old with very little activity, and I noticed that it had been deleted soon after we moved to Email.

Furthermore, another possible ‘red flag’—at least for me—is simply the fact that a beautiful woman actually sought me out on the site and initiated the messaging. Call me cynical, but this hasn’t been my experience in the past on other social and dating sites. Typically on dating sites, my efforts to reach out to dozens, even hundreds of profiles nets in maybe one emoji or “lol” response. That’s an abysmal ‘return on investment’ effort-wise as far as messaging goes. At least for me, very few reply and almost no one initiates.[3] The fact that a beautiful girl messages me first for once soon after I show up in the ‘new users’ feature is a nice change. I hope it’s not too good to be true.

I am pleased to continue communicating with you here, and not on the site.↩︎
From Yulia: October 26, 2020 8:00 AM
This is my first experience of communication on the Internet.↩︎
I am very glad that fortune turned to face me and we found each other. I really want to become for each other someone more than just friends.↩︎

Actually, in hindsight, I seriously doubt this is this scammer’s first rodeo. I think they know exactly what they’re doing on the internet. I’m already starting to get the feeling at this point that this is moving along a bit fast. “More than just friends” already?

From Yulia: October 28, 2020 10:45 AM
My mother just found herself another man and without saying anything she just packed up all her things and ran away from home.↩︎

Here is an example of the sort of thing that initially had me thinking that this could be a genuine young woman. A lot of what ‘Yulia’ wrote did seem genuine and from the heart, at least at first.

I have always believed that the most important thing in a person is honesty and openness. But for a long time I did not open up to other people. But I feel in you something of my own, something close to me. I am very glad that our communication is developing every day.↩︎

This is comforting. This seems like the sort of thing a real, genuine person would say, and not a scammer.

I’m willing to give ‘her’ the benefit of the doubt. Besides, it is kind of nice to feel like someone is showing interest in me, and it’s fun to flirt a bit—even if it is just over Email. I’m starting to hope ‘Yulia’ is real… ‘she’ seem nice.

From Yulia: October 29, 2020 11:45 AM
I will be glad if our communication moves to a new level. I am pleased to communicate with you.↩︎

A ‘new’ level of communication? I’m not sure exactly what this entails but it’s clear that ‘Yulia’ is very interested in moving things along quickly, especially considering we’ve only been talking online less than 2 weeks and have only shared a few selfies.

We banter back and forth a bit more and at one point I ask ‘Yulia’ what ‘her’ perfect soulmate would be like.

From Yulia: October 30, 2020 2:42 AM
I think that the ideal person for me would be an optimist who can support me in any situation and from whom I will feel the same return as from myself.↩︎

This seems like a genuine answer and at this point I’m starting to feel a bit foolish for thinking that this could be a scammer. A scammer wouldn’t carry on an Email conversation for two weeks and not try to pull their scam, right?

I proceed under the assumption that ‘Yulia’ is sincere. I even made a shuffle video for ‘her’ using a song ‘she’ said ‘she’ liked, since we seem to have a lot in common as far as our love of music. ‘She’ claims to like my videos, which of course strokes the ego. [4]

From Yulia: November 01, 2020 11:33 AM
Today after work I went to my father’s house and told him about you, he was very happy for me. He told me that I need to take care of a person like you and I completely agree with him.↩︎
From Yulia: November 02, 2020 11:06 AM
My dear Ryli, did you tell your friends or relatives about our communication? If so, what was the reaction? I’m asking just out of curiosity.↩︎

I guess we’re at the stage in our ‘relationship’ already where we are supposed to ask our friends and family about it, and relay their sentiments to our new significant other.

The funny thing is, the family members and friends I did tell about ‘Yulia’ all said it sounded like a scam. I can understand their skepticism. I do wonder if ‘Yulia’ is asking me this in order to gauge whether or not I’m being warned that this could turn into a scam. But, I decide to not mention the fact that my friends/family are less-than-thrilled about ‘her’. I continue to give ‘Yulia’ the benefit of the doubt for now. Perhaps she is just a very nice girl eager to find her soulmate overseas.

I would like to ask you what are your plans for June? I am very pleased to communicate with you and I would like to talk to you live. And besides, I have never been abroad in Russia. And it would be very interesting for me to look at other countries. I think this is a great idea. What do you think about this?↩︎

‘Yulia’ suggests that we should meet at some point and asks about June. This seems like a reasonable time frame. Hopefully COVID-19 will subside by June, and this gives us several months to plan a trip and obtain visas.

I mention that I have money saved for a trip since I wasn’t able to travel in 2020 due to COVID-19, and that I’ve always wanted to visit Russia.

From Ryli: November 02, 2020 1:30 PM
Where would you like to go? Do you have a country in mind that you would like to visit, if it is possible?↩︎

I’m curious what ‘Yulia’s’ thoughts are on possible future travel. Is she open to the idea of me visiting her in Russia? Or, does she have something else in mind?

From Yulia: November 03, 2020 4:04 AM
It seems to me that I fell in love with you … I don’t know how it happened, but I can no longer imagine my day without you. You have taken a very important place in my life and I do not want to lose you … Perhaps my letter will scare you, but I decided to tell you everything as it is.↩︎

Wow! That was fast! 19 days ladies and gentlemen. Either I’m the Don Juan of Email romance, or there’s something fishy starting to brew. I consult my brother and he assures me this is a scam. I’m not 100% sure yet, but the speed with which this relationship is ‘progressing’ is definitely on the list of ‘red flags’.

I tell ‘Yulia’ that I’m a bit surprised, but not ‘frightened’ that ‘she’ has professed ‘her’ love. I’m curious where this is going now, and I’m starting to get a little suspicious. I decide to play along. If she’s head-over-heels for me, I guess I should act the part.

From Yulia: November 04, 2020 6:26 PM
I would really like to be able to cook in the morning not only for myself, but also surprise you with some dishes of Russian cuisine.↩︎
From Yulia: November 05, 2020 7:42 AM
My dear Ryli, today I had a dream where you and I were walking in rainy summer weather along the road in the countryside. Everything was as if in a fairy tale small pink leaves were falling and the river bank was visible and a huge moon was rising beyond the horizon. I remember how I held your hand and you looked into my eyes. I didn’t see your face, only your eyes. It was dark. My dear Ryli, I am very attached to you and I want to tell you that I really love you.↩︎

‘Yulia’ wants to cook for me and is dreaming about me. This is all very sweet and romantic.

Some more back-and-forth ensues over the next few days. ‘Yulia’ gets sick one day and has to go to the hospital for tests. Hopefully it’s not COVID-19. I send some mushy get-well-soon stuff. She’s fine the next day, and doesn’t have COVID-19. ‘She’ then goes to a cafe with her work colleagues where their boss surprises her with a ‘vacation order’.

From Yulia: November 09, 2020 1:31 PM
I completely forgot that I hadn’t gone on vacation since July last year and now it’s my turn to go on vacation. My dear Ryli, I was extremely happy. The order stated that I would only have to work out all the field orders and work for another week and a half. My vacation will be 45 days long and will start in 10 days.↩︎

Now this is an interesting development. We were just talking about travel, and being together, and now ‘Yulia’ seems to suddenly have a lot of unexpected time off. What are the odds?

My father immediately asked me if I was going to meet you, my beloved Ryli on vacation. Of course I thought about it every day. My dear Ryli, maybe this is a sign from above that it’s time for us to meet and feel close? It seems to me that everything does not happen by chance and this is not just a coincidence. My dear Ryli, you know how I dream to be with you and feel the absence of distance between us. My dear Ryli, I think this is a great opportunity to finally make it happen. I have savings, and besides, I will receive an increased salary before the vacation. I love you very much and want to be with you together. What do you think about this?↩︎

What do I think about this? Honestly, this ‘sign from above’ sounds a bit too good to be true, especially since we just met online. Also, the father sounds oddly excited about the idea of his daughter spending up to 45 days with a man from a different country she has only been Emailing for 3-4 weeks. I guess he’s a big fan.

This is all a bit odd and my suspicion grows. I’m also doubtful about the wisdom of either of us traveling at the end of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lots of borders are closed. I have no idea where or how we could even meet on such short notice, but I’m very curious what direction this is headed, so I agree that the timing is fortuitous and ask what she has in mind.

From Ryli: November 09, 2020 8:30 PM
Yes, you are right. The timing of the vacation is very fortunate. Perhaps it is not a coincidence, and maybe it is a sign that we should meet like you said!↩︎
I was wondering if you had any ideas on where to travel, or where maybe we could meet?↩︎
From Yulia: November 10, 2020 7:49 AM
My dear Ryli, I have always dreamed of visiting the United States and seeing American culture. You can say this is a childhood dream. I can inquire about the possibility of flying to the USA, but for this I need to find out the name of the airport closest to you. Please write this to me. I think that we would agree in character in a personal meeting. You are a very good and optimistic person. I don’t know how to explain, but there is something special about you. Something that other people do not have.↩︎
I think it would be great to do it in your country.↩︎

OK, fair enough. Lots of people want to visit the USA. But, I don’t think it’s possible this year due to COVID-19, and even then, my understanding is that it can normally take several months for Russian citizens to get a US tourist visa. If ‘she’ does inquire about the possibility, I’m sure ‘she’ will quickly learn that it’s an unrealistic one, at least on such short notice.

I figure that a sincere person will accept this and be OK waiting until next year to meet. On the other hand, someone who is using the premise of a trip as a ruse to get money might impatiently push for unrealistic deadlines and travel plans. A scammer most likely has no intention of actually making the trip.

I’m now very curious which direction this is headed…

If everything goes well and we can meet soon, then I have a little surprise for you. I think you’ll be happy about that. My dear Ryli, I called my father today and he is very glad that we will soon have the opportunity to meet. My father said that if I fly to you, he will give a bag with souvenirs and products from Russia, mainly ingredients that improve immunity.↩︎

A surprise? I wonder what it could be? The father seems really onboard with all of this, which strikes me as a bit odd.

I think I could surprise you with some dishes. I would be glad to cook dinner with you on our first day together. I would cook several dishes of Russian cuisine, and you would cook hamburgers and anything else that is popular in the USA. I think that would be interesting. I often imagine a moment if we were together. I would stand at the stove and cook something, and you would come up from behind and hug me. I would be very happy about that.↩︎

I don’t have the heart to admit to ‘Yulia’ that weeks stuck in a kitchen with a stranger from a foreign country that wants me to cook with them, is not my idea of fun. This ‘trip’ is starting to sound more and more outlandish. But, the emails are entertaining, so I press on..

I love you very much↩︎

Note that ‘I love you very much’ later turns into ‘I very love you’. Yes, it’s funny. More significantly, it makes me wonder if ‘Yulia’ might actually be multiple people, since the grammar seems to fluctuate at times from message to message. This could just be due to the fact that English is not the writer’s native language though, so I’m not sure how much to read into this.

From Yulia: November 10, 2020 5:11 PM
My beloved Ryli, I am looking forward to the morning to go to the travel agency to inquire about the possibility of flying. But I would like to know where you yourself would like to meet me. It’s just that it doesn’t really matter to me which city in the USA it will be, because the most important thing for me is to be with you.↩︎

Could it be that the city doesn’t matter because in fact, ‘Yulia’ doesn’t actually intend to travel to the USA at all? But, I am curious what the ‘travel agency’ will tell her. I suggest Las Vegas. Who wouldn’t want to go to Las Vegas?

I’m not a visa/immigration expert, but I know that one of the requirements for a US visa is an in-person interview at a US Embassy or Consulate. The wait time for this interview can be months in many countries—and that was pre-COVID. I don’t think there is any possible way for ‘Yulia’ to get a US tourist visa in such a short amount of time to come to the US during her 45 days off. Any competent travel agency should know this, and inform ‘Yulia’ that a trip to the USA just isn’t possible this year unless she already possesses a US visa.

I love you very much and I want to finally meet you and just feel loved by your side. I am very glad that there will be no language barrier between us. I have been learning English since my school years. I also think that this is not a coincidence, but a sign from above.↩︎

Ah yes, another ‘sign from above’.

‘Yulia’ claims to have gone to the travel agency and reports back her findings in this next Email:

From Yulia: November 12, 2020 8:04 AM
--Copy and original of the passport of the country of residence (passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation)↩︎

Take note of this requirement to submit a copy of the passport. Copies of passports become a hot topic later.

I have already submitted documents and an application for a foreign passport, I was told that in the current situation, the passport will be ready to be received within 10-14 days.↩︎

Wait, ‘Yulia’ doesn’t even have a passport yet? It’s going to take even longer to get a US visa since ‘she’ will have to wait for the passport first.

But when I was told the cost of all this, I could hardly hold back my tears.↩︎

Wait for it…

- train tickets Izhevsk--Moscow $ 48. And additionally a return ticket to return home on arrival another 48 dollars.↩︎

Note that a round-trip train ticket from Izhevsk—Moscow is less than $100. This also becomes a hot topic later.

My dear Ryli, I am writing this now and I cannot help hysterics. The thing is, I have $ 900. This is all my money, taking into account the amount that I will receive as a salary and vacation money. I need $ 649 more.↩︎

BOOM! There it is folks. There… it… is! The demand for money has finally manifested itself. There’s also no mention of the ‘travel agency’ advising on the complete impossibility of this trip on such short notice

I can’t help hysterics.↩︎

I decide to respond by urging patience and being the ‘voice of reason’. In a rather lengthy Email, I detail all of the reasons why it might be better to wait until later next year to meet. I also propose the idea of me meeting her in Russia next year, and give several reasons why this will be safer, easier, better, and less expensive.

Someone genuinely in love might be disappointed to have to wait to meet, but I think they would be open to the idea of meeting later, especially if it made more sense. They’d be willing to make the effort to make any plan work. A scammer who needs a bogus excuse for you to wire them money will insist on their plan.

From Ryli: November 12, 2020 8:43 PM
My gorgeous, I do not want you to be upset, or in hysterics.↩︎

I might as well try to console ‘Yulia’ a bit. Hysterics sound painful.

‘She’ replies back with all of the reasons why we must meet immediately, in the US, according to ‘her’ plan which requires me to send money right away so ‘she’ can book the trip:

From Yulia: November 13, 2020 10:02 AM
But I’ll tell you that a visa costs $ 90, the fact that a visa is expensive is just a stereotype. A visa is issued through a travel agency and the visa processing time is no more than 20 days.↩︎

This is completely false. A US visa is issued by the US government through an Embassy or Consulate—not a travel agency. The processing time might be no more than 20 days—but only after the in-person interview at the Embassy or Consulate, which typically has to be scheduled months in advance. Either ‘she’ has consulted an utterly incompetent travel agency, or ‘she’ is just making stuff up.

I already passed the check and they told me that with a 99% probability I will be able to get a visa in about 20 days, taking into account when I give my passport for the visa application. My beloved Ryli, just understand that spring will not be the best time to meet.↩︎

Wow, 90% probability! More nonsense. ‘Yulia’ then goes on to explain why Meeting in Moscow next year won’t work for ‘her’:

After all, my vacation will end and I will need to go to work.↩︎

Notice how this ‘sign from above’ vacation time is being used as an ultimatum? We have to meet now apparently or else it will never again be possible in the future.

Now there are all favorable conditions for our meeting, but of course, due to the missing amount, everything can collapse. I just don’t know where else I can find money. I was very ashamed to ask you for help, but I just had no choice. You know how much I love you and I am ready to spend everything just to meet you. I really hope for your help.↩︎

I guess traveling through Russia and to the US, on short notice, in the dead of winter, during a global pandemic, and with no money are ‘all favorable conditions’—much more favorable apparently than next spring or summer.

I really want to celebrate my birthday and new year with you. My birthday is December 12, I would really like that on my birthday I received the most significant and favorite gift - you, my beloved Ryli. I really hope that you will understand me and can help me. I really want to be with you and I really want to feel loved next to you. I also want to show you my love.↩︎

I actually had asked ‘Yulia’ when ‘her’ birthday was earlier and ‘she’ never answered. Now the ultimatum is enhanced with a birthday that also just happens to fall during the 45 days off and the proposed trip to Las Vegas.

By the way, due to possible problems with transplants, this can be easily avoided. After all, I will need to additionally take free tests at the hospital. And I will receive certificates that I am not sick. The certificates will be written in English, so there will be no problems during flights.↩︎

I think ‘she’ means ‘transportation’ here. ‘She’ is trying to reassure me that flying from Russia to Las Vegas and through Europe during a pandemic will be no problem at all. All problems will be easily avoided and nothing at all will go wrong with the scheduled flights. Personally, I have not always had such smooth sailing on my travels—and those were all prior to COVID-19.

I respond with another lengthy Email explaining why I still think it makes much more sense to wait until next year to meet, despite the upcoming 45 days of vacation time. I also point out that spending all of your money on one trip and traveling broke seems unwise.

From Ryli: November 14, 2020 12:03 AM
I am sure that you will get more vacation time next year, and will be able to arrange for a few days off in the Spring or Summer since you will have at least 5 months to plan for this. Surely you can plan for a few days off in Moscow with 5 or 6 months preparation!↩︎
Yulia, I am so eager to meet you in person, but I do not think it is wise to travel if it will exhaust all of your available funds.↩︎

If ‘her’ intent to go on this trip with no money is genuine, this means I’ll be on the hook for 20+ days of vacation (and living) expenses for 2 people! Even if this wasn’t a scam, this is an awful idea (at least on my account). I’m not thrilled at the prospect of ‘babysitting’ a broke foreign tourist I’ve never met before for 20+ days, regardless of how in love ‘she’ claims to be with me.

I have actually made this mistake before, nearly 3 years ago. I traveled abroad and spent all of my money on the trip. I even had to charge money on my credit card to get home, and I was struggling financially when I got home until I returned to work and received my next paycheck 2 weeks later. Then, I had to pay off the charges I had put on the credit card. This was very expensive, took a long time, and cost a lot of money in interest. I was very foolish to travel with so little money. I do not wish for anyone to make this same mistake.↩︎

True story. I foolishly went on a rushed trip I couldn’t afford to meet a girl in Ukraine back in 2018, and then to Iceland with her later that year. Both trips were debacles (I’ll write more about these later). It was a big lesson learned, and one of the reasons why I’ve decided to share this correspondence, so that other people reading this don’t make the same mistakes I have made. I also urge ‘Yulia’ not to make the same mistake.

Of course, I can help with finances and expenses too when we spend time together, but I will not always be with you when you travel to and from the US, and for this reason it is always good and wise to have your own funds, especially in case of any emergency.↩︎

Again, my honest advice. Never travel broke. It’s miserable and nerve-wracking.

Another thing I’ve learned is that a good test of someone’s sincerity in matters like this, is their willingness to ‘meet you halfway’—both distance-wise and financially. If ‘Yulia’ was genuine, and willing and able to fund her own trip somewhere to meet me, then of course I would be a gentleman and help with expenses while together. If you wish to contribute financially to a meeting, it’s always better to insist to provide the financial assistance—whatever form that might be—once you have finally met in person. If you offer to help pay for a trip, insist that they make it to the destination and meet in person first, and then offer reimbursement for any expenses you wish to ‘help’ with. Never give money to someone you’ve never met in person.

I offered to reimburse all expenses related to a possible meeting in Moscow next year. A genuine romantic interest should at least be receptive to such an offer. ‘Yulia’ was not thrilled, as you’ll see shortly.

If we wish to talk before meeting next year, this is possible using video chat!↩︎
My gorgeous Yulia, I have not seen a picture from you for 4 days now, and I think it would be lovely to chat over video and hear your voice, and see your smile! What do you think about this?↩︎

Another way to protect yourself from scammers online is to insist on a video chat before meeting in person. This is an easy way to determine if the person in the photos you’ve been receiving actually matches the person you’re writing. In my experience, genuine people usually like this idea. They might even suggest it themselves. A scammer, on the other hand, will be skittish around the topic of video chat.

From Yulia: November 14, 2020 6:26 AM
Hello my dear Ryli, I have carefully read your letter and honestly I was a little upset.↩︎

Uh-oh. ‘She’ is upset at my reluctance to send money for a rushed (and impossible) trip. That’s not a good sign. Also note the emotional manipulation. I’m making ‘Yulia’ very upset by not helping ‘her’. Earlier, ‘she’ said that ‘she’ would like to find someone who would, “support me in any situation.” I have now upset ‘her’ by not readily supporting ‘her’ (i.e. by not appeasing to ‘her’ request for money—a request that is starting to sound more like a demand).

I am sure that in the spring-summer period the entrance to Russia will be closed and I cannot know if they will give me a weekend if you come to Moscow. Besides, it will take me almost a day to get to Moscow. My job may require an urgent appearance at work or a field order. The distance is about 1500 kilometers between Izhevsk and Moscow.↩︎

Apparently, ‘she’ will have no vacation or time off in 2021. I guess in Russia, you get 45 days of vacation at the end of one year, and then not a single day off the year after.

Notice also how ‘she’ must go to Moscow to catch the flight to Las Vegas and that’s not such a big deal (only $48 each way), but suddenly the prospect of a trip to Moscow next year is an impossible journey with insurmountable challenges.

Also, someone must be covering these ‘urgent appearances’ and ‘field orders’ during ‘her’ 45 day vacation, but the same coverage can’t be arranged for 2 or 3 days next spring or summer with 5+ months notice? That seems unlikely.

Another lesson I’ve learned the hard way: If someone claims to be dying to see you, but not willing to make arrangements to take even 1 day off of work during your proposed visit to their country or city, then they’re really not that into you after all.

The red flags are coming in waves now. It’s starting to look like a May Day parade up in here.

It’s just that now I constantly think only about how to quickly solve the problem with money and finally make our meeting, because every day of such letters, our meeting is getting further and further away.↩︎

Ah yes. Sending money immediately will solve all of the problems—even ones like not having a passport or US visa for a trip in 4 weeks.

My beloved Ryli, this hotel room is for you and me. I can hardly hold back tears now. I really hoped that you would support me and we will meet soon.↩︎

I guess we’re sharing a hotel room now? More tears… Even if this was actually a girl named ‘Yulia’ in love with me, ‘she’ apparently has the temperament of a 6 year old and throws tantrums. I don’t want to deal with this anyways—especially not on a 20+ day vacation stuck in the same hotel room!

I really want to be with you on my birthday, I really want to celebrate the New Year and Christmas with you.↩︎

More ultimatums. We have to be together on these particular days for some reason.

I love you very much↩︎

Sure…

Sorry, I can’t send you a photo today. I’m just in tears.↩︎

I guess I don’t get a selfie today. I’ve been a bad boy.

Don’t you just hate it when you’re so upset, you can’t even tap the button on your phone to take a photo? Or, Perhaps ‘Yulia’ has simply ran out of stock selfies to send? Besides, wouldn’t it have been more compelling to send a picture in tears? Now that would have been a great tactic to really yank at the heart strings!

From Yulia: November 14, 2020 1:15 PM
Now I really want to show you a video that I liked a couple of years ago and I could listen to this track on repeat for a long time. You know. I am a little sad now and I hope that when I see your letter, I will be full of joy. I love you very much and I want to ask you to send a video of your dances, if you have anything else besides those that you sent me. I watched these videos several times and imagined you dancing a slow dance with me. When I wrote you a letter where I confessed my feelings. I sent you a photo in a blue dress. I didn’t wear this dress anywhere, I left it for a very important event. I hope this event will happen soon. On my birthday. I think the best event for me on my birthday will be our joint dance. I very love you.↩︎

I guess ‘Yulia’ forgot how to send links to videos online, and must show me this video only in person.

By now, I doubt ‘Yulia’ cares at all about my dance videos, but this is a clever ploy to really make you think they’re in love. This is the sort of message that makes me understand how people can be fooled by these scams. It’s a dopamine hit: “Oh wow, she’s actually into me. She’s crazy about me”!

See the manipulation here? It’s basically a mandate to say something in the next Email that will soothe our distraught lover. My guess is the only thing in the world that could possibly calm them down at this point is… money.

I just thought that I really want to hear your voice. I can issue a SIM card for calls abroad and call you. If of course you want this, you can send me your phone number.↩︎

Interesting. So this is how ‘Yulia’ dodges the video chat request. We can talk over the phone as long a I send them my number, but not video. I think a genuine person would most likely send you their number and say, “Call me.” Notice how even talking on the phone is conditional here: If you want this, send me your number. It’s also a stall tactic.

Since it’s apparent that this is clearly a scam by now, I decide to lead ‘Yulia’ on like ‘she’ has been doing to me. ‘She’ has wasted my time pretending to be in love, so now I will waste ‘hers’ pretending to send the money.

From Ryli: November 14, 2020 2:53 PM
Also, you are right. It would be a shame to waste this opportunity now since you have so much vacation time, and it is apparent to me now that it will be impossible for you to take any days off next year, even with 6 months of advance notice. It is such a shame that your employer will only give you this time off now, but none next year.↩︎

I think it’s time to ‘come around’ to Yulia’s point of view…

Please tell me if you know of a way for me to send you money, and exactly how much to send. Once I know this, I will send anything you need right away!↩︎

You are right dear… I’d love to send you the money—if only I knew how! Would anyone like to place a bet on what method ‘Yulia’ recommends?

A small issue with money is nothing. I can fix this for us. It would be so tragic to let this opportunity go to waste simply because of a simple issue with funds.↩︎

Ultimatum ‘accepted’. We must do this now.

From Yulia: November 15, 2020 5:28 AM
I am very glad to read your letter. I am the happiest person now. My beloved Ryli, I love you very much. The travel agency told me that the hotel voucher is issued from December 12 to January 8. On January 9, I will have to return to Russia. My beloved Ryli, I asked my father for advice on how to accept translations.↩︎

‘Yulia’ is happy once more now that I have capitulated to ‘her’ demands and agreed to send the money. Imagine that. My compliance has been rewarded with further details about the ‘travel plans’: 28 days at a Las Vegas hotel with someone I’ve never met in person.[5] This sounds reasonable. I wonder which one it is? I hope it’s the Bellagio!

$1,549 for the whole trip---including the $649 I am to send---might actually be a bargain!

$1,549 for the whole trip—including the $649 I am to send—might actually be a bargain!

My dear Ryli, after I can pay at the travel agency I will be given a complete list of actions and the travel company will send some requests for documents, including all appearances at the instance.↩︎

Yes, most travel agencies I’ve heard of do not give you any paperwork or allow you to see the details of the trip you wish to book with no passport until after you pay up front for everything… This isn’t a red flag at all.

I’m not sure what ‘appearances at the instance’ are, but it must be important for the trip planning.

My father will give me souvenirs for you and some products that may surprise you and improve your immune system.↩︎

Ah yes, the aforementioned surprising souvenirs to boost my immune system from the enthusiastic father. I might have the world’s strongest immune system after we meet.

From Yulia: November 15, 2020 8:01 AM
I was told that it will be faster and more convenient if you send the transfer online through the Western Union system.↩︎

Did you place your bets earlier? What an upset! No one saw that coming!

You will be given some kind of transfer code that you can send to me. With this code and my passport, I will go to the branch of my bank and get this money right away↩︎

Some kind of transfer code, eh? Oh ‘Yulia’, I bet you know exactly what Western Union MTCNs are! Also, what passport? I thought you didn’t have a passport yet.

He said that he was very glad that I finally found myself a good man. My father handed me a photo frame and asked my beloved Ryli to take our photo together. We can take a photo for my father, my Prince Ryli, right?↩︎

Sure, why not. I have been a good boy and the selfies have resumed with the prospect of me sending money. I’ve also now been promoted to ‘prince’.

This father guy must really like me! At this point maybe I should just be trying to hang out with him in Vegas. That might be more fun. He probably cries a lot less and isn’t as prone to ‘hysterics’.

translation↩︎

I think ‘she’ must mean ‘transaction’ or ‘transfer’. ‘She’ continually refers to it as a ‘translation’ from this point on, which amuses me.

I very love you.↩︎

Aw, I very love you too, ‘Yulia’.

I’m confused about a few things. Does ‘Yulia’ have a passport or not? ‘She’ must have some sort of ID (probably fake) that ‘she’ is planning to use to pick up the money. It would be interesting to see this ID, and if it really shows a birth date of December 12. I cook up a story about the Western Union agent requiring a copy of the ID ‘she’ is planning to use in order to complete the transfer.

Just to clarify, I never intended nor attempted to actually send money. The stories I make up about Western Union policies are as fake as ‘Yulia’. I did not interact with Western Union or MoneyGram, or any of their employees/associates/agents at any time.
From Yulia: November 16, 2020 3:08 AM
Hi my beloved Ryli, I just called the Western Union hotline. I was told that bank employees have no right to restrict your ability to make transfers using the Western Union system. They thereby violate your rights. I asked if you need to provide passport details to the sender’s bank. I was told that this is confidential information that I am not obliged to disclose to the sender’s bank since this is already a violation of my rights. My beloved Ryli, my passport is not ready yet. Of course, I can send you a photo of my passport, but only after I myself receive my passport.↩︎

My rights have apparently been violated. So have ‘hers’. ‘Yulia’ confirms that ‘she’ does not have a passport. ‘She’ is willing to send me a copy once ‘she’ gets it, but ‘she’ can’t get it until ‘she’ completes payment, which I need to send money to help with. How convenient.

I also turned to my bank and was told that in no case should I disclose my passport data to other financial institutions. Since this can already be considered a scam.↩︎

Fair enough. I’m glad ‘Yulia’ and the ‘bank’ are cognizant of scams. Still, it’s suspicious to me that no other ID or proof of identity is offered or mentioned—especially since an ID of some sort is required to pick up the Western Union transfer.[6]

I have a balance today for an absolute day off. I was hoping that today I would take care of paying for tickets and documents at a travel agency.↩︎

Interestingly, ‘Yulia’—who under no circumstances would be able to get any time off to meet in Moscow in 6 months—seems to suddenly have lots of time off work when waiting to receive money transfers—or ‘translations’.

you don’t need to send more than you need to pay for tickets and paperwork. I will not waste any extra money, but I will return it to you when we are together in a hotel in the USA.↩︎

Well, that’s nice. I’m glad none of my money will be wasted. I’m also glad I’ll get it back. I’m not clear how though. The trip starts on Dec 12—about 27 days away. She claimed that $900 was all of her money—her life savings essentially. So in 27 days she’s going to magically make $650 before our meeting? But wait, her vacation supposedly starts in around 10 days, so unless she’s getting paid time off, she has less than 10 days to make $650, or to essentially almost double her net worth, so she can return it to me.

Promises of returning the money once we meet is another big ‘red flag’. The May Day parade of red flags is in full swing.

‘Yulia’ urges me to try to do the transfer online. I dust off my laughable photo-editing skills and respond with this, along with a made-up confirmation number.

The fake on-line confirmation I send back to 'Yulia'

The fake on-line confirmation I send back to ‘Yulia’

After an (alleged) trip to the bank, our internet lover has discovered that the bogus MTCN number is invalid, and is eagerly awaiting for me to double-check it while (allegedly) waiting at an internet cafe.

From Yulia: November 17, 2020 1:46 AM
It’s just that the bank told me that such a number does not exist. Maybe you mixed up the figure somewhere?↩︎

Hmm, I can’t imagine what the issue could be…

From Yulia: November 17, 2020 3:24 AM
I very love you.↩︎

‘Yulia’ is eager for an explanation, but luckily she still very loves me.

I will tell you the exact date of my arrival at the Las Vegas airport only after paying for the trip.↩︎

Ah, I see. If I don’t give the money, I don’t get to know the exact details of the start of our 28-day vacation together in Las Vegas.

I guess ‘Yulia’ must be using the ‘Kinder Surprise Egg’ travel agency, where there is no such thing as ‘tentative’ trip itineraries or planning. You just pay up front and a random bundling of bookings is assigned to you. They hand you a filing folder of booking confirmations covered in chocolate and foil. You have to peel off the foil and eat through the chocolate to see the details of the trip you just bought.

Please check the correctness of the specified translation. They told me there was some mistake.↩︎

Apparently, made-up MTCN numbers aren’t valid.

From Yulia: November 17, 2020 7:59 AM
I think that if you wear this suit and I wear a blue dress, then we will look very harmoniously complementing each other.↩︎

Fantastic! I’ve always dreamed of looking very ‘harmoniously complementing’!

My dear Ryli, tomorrow I have a day off. Since tomorrow there will be a planned power outage in the building. Unfortunately, the salon will not work tomorrow.↩︎

Another day off? Apparently days off at her job coincide with pending Western Union ‘translations’.

After all, if everything goes well, then tomorrow I will make the payment at a travel agency and go to draw up many documents. I will do it in a measured manner and according to the plan that will be given to me by the travel agency.↩︎

That’s a relief. I was worried that ‘Yulia’ might try to draw up documents in an ‘unmeasured manner’, not according to the plan given to her by the Kinder Surprise Travel Agency.

I guess I need to account for the bogus confirmation number, so I make up a story that’s as real as our love. I say I called some hotline and spoke with an anti-fraud specialist (who I also made up). This ‘specialist’ explains that further verification is needed, like documents showing some sort of evidence of trip planning, and photos with us holding up notes to ‘prove’ that we are really in a relationship.

The ‘custom photo’ trick is a simple way to test if the sender of Emails really matches the person in the photos. If it’s a guy Emailing you photos he’s ‘scraped’ off the internet and social media sites, it will be very difficult for him to find a photo with the person wearing or holding a certain item.

From Ryli: November 17, 2020 12:45 PM
It is a real shame that cases of fraud and scams have gotten so bad that Western Union has had to implement these new measures. I cannot believe how cruel and evil some people in this world must be to trick and take advantage of others like that. But my sweet Yulia, I am not worried. I know that you are not a scam. You are very real to me!↩︎

Just in case ‘Yulia’ starts suspecting I’m on to ‘her’ with all of this made-up malarkey, let’s make sure ‘she’ still think I’m totally duped and lovestruck.

Apparently my sarcasm got lost in translation. They continue to press on, hoping for a payout.

From Yulia: November 17, 2020 3:25 PM
I was informed that according to the federal law on the protection of personal data. I quote - When carrying out actions related to the provision of personal data specified in the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation, it is forbidden to require the provision of photocopies of passport pages, as well as the removal of copies of passport pages, their scanning and photographing.↩︎

The Kinder Egg Travel Agency needed copies of passports and that was fine I guess, but now suddenly copies of passports are in violation of ‘the federal law on the protection of personal data’. I don’t think we’re going to get any sort of ID—even a fake one—from ‘Yulia’ to prove that ‘she’ is who ‘she’ says ‘she’ is. Oh well, it was worth a shot.

I wonder if it is also against the federal law for citizens of the Russian Federation to engage in wire fraud? ‘Yulia’ seems far less worried about that.

A bank employee told me that it is advisable to take this money from the Western Union system, since the requirements are strange and no one has come across such a thing.↩︎

I’m shocked! No one has heard of my additional made-up verification procedures? I’m actually a bit hurt that they think them strange. I thought they were pretty good, if I do say so myself.

I am also not obligated to prove to Western Union about my intentions to visit the United States.↩︎

Fair enough. But, what about proving them to me at the very least before I send money? I think ‘Yulia’ has no intentions to actually visit. That’s my bet. Even if she did, there’s no way for her to get a visa in time.

Also, you are not obliged to forward our letters as it violates the human right to privacy.↩︎

Ah shoot, I guess I’m violating human rights. I’m glad ‘Yulia’ is concerned about the human right to privacy. I wonder how ‘she’ feels about Email scams and fraud.

From Yulia: November 18, 2020 5:59 AM
I was told that perhaps you yourself have become a victim of scammers↩︎

This literally made me laugh out loud. I would be a victim if I was actually falling for this. I get the sense that one scammer is suddenly worried that they won’t get their payout because another has gotten to me first!

And now for me dream number one is meeting you and our first dance, first kiss, first love. I love you very much and, to be honest, I really want you to be able to hug me now, take my hand and just look into each other’s eyes. My dear Ryli, I will have to send you flight details when I can pay. I don’t know how it will be. If suddenly you receive a letter from the manager with the date, time and airport when I arrive, then know that this will be a message that we will be together soon. Maybe they’ll tell me to send you the flight details myself. But of course, for this to happen, I need to pay for the flight.↩︎

More romantic fantasizing. Another explanation of how flight details cannot be obtained until after I send money for ‘her’ to pay off the Kinder Surprise Travel Agency.

Surprisingly, I did finally get 2 photos of ‘Yulia’ holding the custom note, and even a video.

The 'custom message' photos sent by 'Yulia'.

The ‘custom message’ photos sent by ‘Yulia’.

Despite these, I’m still convinced this is a scam. Maybe I’m a cynic, but the very short video doesn’t seem to convey quite the passion that the emails contain. It reminds me a bit of the ones made by POWs forced to read statements they don’t agree with under duress.

I wonder if this person just fills ‘selfie’ and ‘custom photo’ and video requests from the scam mill. Or, maybe she is the scammer. Either way, the fact that ‘Yulia’ was able to (eventually) come up with these photos and the video does go to show once more just how clever and convincing these scams can be.

‘Yulia’ did have me on the hook earlier on until things got too suspicious, so let’s keep ‘her’ on the hook now. I explain that I’m working very hard to resolve this ‘issue’ on my end. I ‘cancel’ the bogus Western Union transfer that is fictitiously tied up in the (made-up) additional verification process, and pretend to take my cash to MoneyGram instead. I send another bogus confirmation number. I even make and send another dance video.

From Yulia: November 19, 2020 1:14 AM
Hi my beloved Ryli, I just went to the bank to get a transfer from you. I was told clearly and clearly that the transfer for such a number does not exist or the transfer number does not exist.↩︎

I’m clearly and clearly baffled…

It’s just the second time when the translation is not available. I do not understand what is the matter and what is happening in general.↩︎

I have no idea either. What could possibly be the issue?

Please send me a photo of the receipt or a screenshot from your Moneygram account. I came home and my tears were flowing, I just could not contain my emotions.↩︎

More crying…

From Yulia: November 19, 2020 5:31 AM
I just went with my father to another bank where the Moneygram system used to work. They told me there that this system does not even work in Russia. In Russia, only sending is possible, but not receiving. Apparently this information was not communicated to me in the bank where I went first.↩︎

Now I have to admit, this is really clever. According to MoneyGram’s own site, they do offer transfers to Russia, and you can even use their locator tool to find locations to pick up money. I even sent a screenshot of this to ‘Yulia’. So, I think this whole thing about MoneyGram not working in Russia is a lie.

I also know—at least from my own experience—that MoneyGram tends to be more strict about the sort of transfers they allow. I actually had a (real) transfer to Ukraine declined by MoneyGram once.[7] In that case, my online transfer was suspended and when I called to resolve the matter, the agent basically said something along the lines of, “This transaction seems suspicious to us and we decline to process it”, and then issued a refund. Scammers tend to prefer—and urge you—to use other services besides MoneyGram, as MoneyGram’s anti-fraud measures are rumored to be more difficult for scammers to circumvent.

It’s funny that at first ‘Yulia’ said the bogus confirmation number was bad, but then explained to me that the reason it is invalid is because the system doesn’t work in Russia, and that I had better use something else! So, I didn’t even have to come up with another bogus explanation for the bogus code I sent—’she’ explained it away for me! Brilliant!

‘Yulia’ suggests trying Western Union again, then proceeds to give me some pointers on how to make the transfer succeed this time around:

I was told that you can simply omit the explanation for the translation or give another reason.↩︎

So now, ‘she’ wants me to omit or lie about the reason if I’m asked. I guess, “lover I recently met online needs urgent help with travel expenses to meet me,” might raise eyebrows. Go figure.

We’re starting to drown in the sea of red flags.

I’m just shocked that things are going this way. Today they called me from a travel company and told me to pay the full amount, since I paid only a part. My dear Ryli, I was informed that I need to pay the amount by tomorrow, before the office of the travel agency closes, otherwise the amount will be increased by 7,500-10,000 rubles.↩︎

Another ultimatum. More contrived urgency. Apparently, the Kinder Surprise Travel Company also engages in payday loan tactics. This poor ‘Yulia’ is going to get hammered with fees if I don’t get my act together and send the money immediately.

If you can make a transfer via Western Union and there are no problems, then please send me a screenshot or photo of the payment receipt. So that I go to my bank with this and again there are no problems with receiving money. I implore you to do this as soon as possible. It’s just that I’m getting a little scared. Please, if there is a problem with the money transfer and is suspended again, then tell your friend the reason, and not the meeting and assistance with the trip to the USA. I cannot provide a lot of documents to Western Union and I do not have to do it according to the law and I am very scared if my documents go to the wrong place and I cannot fly to the USA to meet with you. I very love you. Please be in touch with me from 10 am to 12 pm tomorrow Moscow time. I won’t sleep tonight either. I’ll be waiting for your letter. I’m waiting for your answer.↩︎

Now, I’m being ‘implored’ to send the money, and to lie about the reason if necessary.

Funny enough, my ‘demands’ for documents showing ‘evidence’ of trip preparation are brushed aside, but ‘Yulia is now demanding very specific things from me - including evidence of the money transfer and specific contact times. ‘Yulia’ is not obligated to send any proof (in fact, doing so would be ‘illegal’), but I must send the money!

We have completely drowned and are now laying at the bottom of the red flag sea floor.

Fortunately, ‘Yulia’ still very loves me throughout all this. I explain that I’m worried about this second Western Union transfer being flagged for fraud again, but I have a cunning plan

From Ryli: November 19, 2020 2:01 PM
Yulia, I am a little worried though. I think to them, it might seem odd that I cancelled a Western Union transfer, only to re-send the same one 3 days later. I am also worried that they will ask me a reason for the transfer again. You suggested that I not offer a reason, or perhaps give them a different one. My dear Yulia, this seems a bit dishonest to me but if necessary, I will do this, only because it is for you, and to see you, and to be together which is the most important thing in the world. So, if they ask, I will tell them that the reason is that you are my wife, and that our child is very sick, and needs emergency medical treatment in Russia while I am stuck here in the USA ‘on business’. This sounds very convincing to me. What do you think? Hopefully, I won’t have to tell this ‘white lie’, but it is what I will do in order to get the money to you. Also, I will change the amount so that it does not seem so suspicious. I will send $800 this time so it looks completely different than the last one↩︎

I go all Bonnie & Clyde. For ‘her’, I will lie and we will commit fraud together!

From Yulia: November 19, 2020 3:35 PM
I very love you. I’m sitting there shaking with fear. I’ve never been so scared. I don’t know if this “white lie” will work. But I believe and really hope. I believe in what is our love. I am now sitting in tears of happiness from your letter. Nobody ever wrote to me like that. I love you very much and I cannot imagine my world without you. You are my world. Now I am filled with mixed feelings. I feel that I am really happy and at the same time scared because of the transfer by the Western Union system. I am looking forward to your letter. I am very afraid. Please be careful. I love you!↩︎

‘Yulia’ is overjoyed. My plan to lie for ‘her’ and commit fraud together is the sweetest thing ‘she’ has ever heard. ‘She’ warns me to be careful, as if I’m about to rob a bank or something.

Don’t worry ‘Yulia’, I will be very careful!

I carefully open my photo-editing program, and carefully make another bogus confirmation page. I carefully search Google for images of fake Western Union receipts, and carefully make up another bogus confirmation number. This is all carefully sent to ‘her’ in another Email.

The 2nd fake confirmation and receipt I send back to 'Yulia'

The 2nd fake confirmation and receipt I send back to ‘Yulia’

From Yulia: November 19, 2020 4:03 PM
My Prince Ryli, I have now checked the transfer on the Western Union website. Please check it yourself. There is no such translation. I do not know what to do. Please go to the site and in the section track the status of the transfer, check if everything works for you.↩︎

I reply back with another (made-up) explanation. Our (make-believe) fearless neighborhood fraud prevention specialist makes another appearance. I relay to ‘Yulia’ what happened.

From Ryli: November 19, 2020 5:53 PM
He explained that the transaction was flagged due to the fact that I have tried to send money to the same recipient twice, and he asked what the reason for this 2nd transfer was. Yulia, you would be so proud of me! I was very brave and did what you told me to do. I explained that you were planning on traveling, and that you were actually my wife. I told him that the reason that I canceled the last transaction, was because our child had become ill. Now our child is very ill and requires emergency medical treatment. I think he believed me.↩︎

The made-up ‘fraud specialist’ falls for my lie, un-freezes the made-up transfer, and gives the following instructions

Due to the fact that this transaction has been flagged for fraud, it is necessary for Yulia to provide a Case Resolution Reference Number (CRRN) when picking up the money. We have also generated a new confirmation (MTCN) number. This is a special MTCN that will not appear when tracked online for your protection since it is set to high priority. However, the Western Union agent in Russia will be able to access this transaction as long as Yulia also provides the CRRN.↩︎
Please inform your wife that it is very important to provide both codes in person at the Western Union branch or bank where she collects the money.↩︎

Just to be clear, there’s no such thing as a ‘CRRN’. I made that up, along with yet another confirmation code.

I think we have finally solved this issue together, my dear Yulia! You know, I was thinking… We get along and work together so well. We even commit fraud together! haha Today I had to tell that little ‘white lie’ about you being my wife to Dan, but wouldn’t it be great if it wasn’t a lie? I have a wonderful idea! Since we love each other very much, we should get married in Las Vegas!↩︎

Why not?

From Yulia: November 20, 2020 3:22 AM
Hi Ryli. I have just returned from the bank. When I came to the bank, they immediately looked at me strangely because I brought a 12-digit code. At that moment, I could hardly hold back my tears. I was very worried. I showed your receipt that you sent me. It was made clear to me that this receipt was downloaded and clipped from google images. This code doesn’t even exist. I was told that the sender is a scammer who asks for copies of passports and other documents in order to subsequently take loans from microloan companies.↩︎

I think our scammer has finally realized my intent to send ‘her’ money is as genuine as ‘her’ intent to meet me in Las Vegas next month. Plot twist: Apparently I’m the scammer!

My dear Ryli, why did you do this? I believed you with all my soul, and you sent me false codes. What is all this for? You know that I have already paid my money and left only 2500 rubles for myself for food. In addition, the price of the flight was increased by 7900 rubles. All this washed over me like a huge wave. I could not contain the hysteria and found the strength to write to you. Why are you writing to me about the wedding, if you don’t even want to help me? You know that almost all the missing amount is the price of a hotel for two. Write me the truth. What did you want to achieve by this? I want to sort this out. I just don’t know what to think. I hope this is all just a joke. I will be waiting for your answer.↩︎

More ‘hysteria’. What I find interesting here is that even though ‘Yulia’ suspects something is amiss with my intentions to send ‘her’ the money, ‘she’ is still trying to make me feel bad for not helping ‘her’, and about the fact that the money was for the hotel.

Which hotel, I have no clue. But it was for the hotel in Las Vegas—supposedly.

I know I’m wasting my time, but ‘she’ did ask, so I fire off another Email that basically details many of the reasons I suspect that ‘she’ has not been honest with me, such as the claim that ‘she’ can obtain a US visa in time for the trip in December.

From Ryli: November 20, 2020 8:01 AM
Tell me, how is your visa application coming along? I’m very intrigued by this. I know that an in-person interview is required at the US Consulate to obtain a visa. The US Consulates in Russia are not even accepting interview appointments at this time according to the official website (https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/wait-times.html). Even if they were, the wait time is typically at least 2 months. Even if you were real, and even if you did intend to go on this trip (which I doubt), there is no way that you could go on such short notice without already possessing a passport and visa.↩︎

I also explain my honest intent.

I plan to publish these Emails as an example of how scammers like you operate, so that others can learn how to avoid them.↩︎

‘Yulia’ then informs me that I’m wrong about the visa, and sends me a link to a site for a travel agency that ‘she’ claims shows I’m wrong based on the, “number of reviews and votes for this article.” ‘She’ threatens legal action for being in, “violation of some laws of the Russian Federation.”

I’m not sure which Laws of the Russian Federation I have violated, but apparently I have violated some of them. Perhaps in Russia, it is a crime not to give money to someone trying to defraud you.

From Yulia: November 20, 2020 8:29 AM
If this investigation goes far, I hope we meet in court and I can look you in the eye. Also, if it is possible, I will appeal to the higher authorities about your deception. I will bring all the evidence that I was confident in my intentions, and you were simply deceiving me and I had to make attempts to obtain funds on the basis of knowingly false information. Tomorrow I will go to the prosecutor’s office.↩︎

Yes, it’s my fault ‘she’ gave all ‘her’ money to the Kinder Surprise Travel Agency, even after I urged against this idea at least twice and suggested meeting in Moscow next year instead.

I think this is simply another bluffing tactic. Since the flattery and fake love didn’t work, ‘she’ is now resorting to (ridiculous) legal threats.

I give into my bad habit of always wanting to have the last word and fire off one last Email basically explaining that if ‘she’ did give all of her money to a travel agency (which I doubt) who lied to ‘her’ about being able to obtain a US visa so quickly, then perhaps ‘she’ should pursue legal action against them, not me.

One other thing I pointed out is that the link ‘she’ sent me as some sort of ‘proof’ that I was wrong just proves my point. I doubt ‘Yulia’ even read this page, because when I did (after translating it to English), I noticed this information displayed prominently:

From Ryli: November 20, 2020 4:26 PM
If we talk about the initial receipt of a visa in the United States, then, first of all, the terms of obtaining an American visa depend on the seasonal changes in the “demand” for it. Traditionally, the number of those wishing to apply for a visa increases before the New Year holidays and the summer vacation season. During these periods, the waiting time for an appointment can be up to several weeks. In addition, after the reduction in the staff of the US diplomatic mission in the Russian Federation, the number of places for visa interviews has decreased tenfold, and the waiting time at the Embassy has already reached several months. More efficient design options are presented at the Consulate in Vladivostok and abroad.↩︎

So, there you go. The US Embassies/Consulates in Russia are not currently accepting visa interview appointments according to travel.state.gov. Furthermore, the wait times were already several months long prior to COVID-19 due to a reduction in staff.

If we do go to court over this silly matter of fake transfer codes (which is highly unlikely), I guess then we will have a chance to meet in Moscow after all, which is what I had originally suggested anyways. It is funny that you said you will have no time to visit anyone in Moscow next year due to work, but now seem to have plenty of time to threaten legal action and go to court. Yet again, nothing about your story makes sense. I have plenty of reason to believe it is fake, and that “Yulia” is too.↩︎

I haven’t heard from ‘Yulia’ since.

Conclusion

I now understand how someone could fall prey to these romance scams, especially if they are not aware of the warning signs. Scammers have become very sophisticated. The patience of this one intrigues me the most. I corresponded with them every day over the course of a month. The scam wasn’t fully apparent until about 4 weeks in, and I thought this was a genuine person at first.

In addition to documenting this as an example of how sophisticated and manipulative these scams can be, deceiving this scammer once it became clear that it was a scam was an act of vengeance in a way. I loathe how they prey on others’ kindness, openness, and desire for real connection. They also prey on the lonely and vulnerable. Sadly, it is often the most kind, down-to-earth people who are the most vulnerable to these sorts of scams.

Besides the monetary loss, it can be emotionally devastating to be a victim of a romance scam, because the victims do pour a lot of time and energy into corresponding with and hoping that the person they’re talking to is also genuine. When the scammers disappear (with the money), the realization that you poured your heart out to a fraudster who never gave a darn, is often crushing. Add to that the shame and frustration of realizing you have been tricked.

It’s one thing to get conned in a quick street game of 3-Card Monty. But, romance scams are particularly vicious, because they exploit people’s better tendencies, prey on their deepest desires, and cheat them not only out of money, but their time and emotional energy as well. Perhaps this example might help someone recognize the warning signs, and avoid becoming the next victim.

Ryli Dunlap


  1. ↩︎ Western Union publishes a lot of useful material on their BeFraudSmart site on how to protect yourself (and your loved ones) from money transfer fraud and scams. This document and this video address romance scams in particular.

  2. ↩︎ I will refer to the person messaging me as ‘Yulia’, ‘she’ or ‘her’ (in quotes) since I doubt this was the sender’s actual name, or if they were even female.

  3. ↩︎ This is the typical experience on dating sites for a lot of guys I talk to—particularly shorter ones. For attractive women, I think it’s reversed. I was comparing experiences on dating sites with a female friend and they mentioned being absolutely inundated with messages, to the point where it was completely overwhelming. Must be nice!

  4. ↩︎ I figured that even though this did turn out to be a scam, the time spent on the videos wasn’t a total waste since it’s just more practice and content for my music/dance site and YouTube channel.

  5. ↩︎ Most people that have been to Las Vegas on vacation agree that anything more than 3 days there at a time is too much of a good thing. I went with some friends a couple of years ago who initially wanted to stay 10 days. I eventually talked them down to 7. We had fun, but we were exhausted (and had thoroughly depleted our spending money budget). They agreed that a 3-day weekend might make more sense next time.

  6. ↩︎ This is a technically a requirement, but I have no idea how well it’s actually enforced in all places. I think it’s really up to the clerk/agent in the receiving country whether they ask for ID prior to giving the money to a person with a confirmation number (MTCN). I’m sure scammers have figured out how/where to collect transfers without photo ID.

  7. ↩︎ This was related to my (mis)adventures with hastily-planned and poorly-funded trips also involving overseas ‘romance’. I’ll write more about these escapades later.