EXPOSED: The gangs who fleece lonely widows in just the latest twist to the online fraud epidemic

With his chiselled jaw and toned physique — gained courtesy of heroic peacekeeping missions in Syria — he’s every woman’s dream.

But, in reality, that’s all he is: a fantasy, woven by callous online fraudsters to extort a fortune from British women.

The man is just one of the weapons cynically deployed by a sophisticated criminal gang who, the Mail can reveal, take a staggering £50million a year from their female victims.

The fantasy… and the reality: Josh Porter’s picture (left) is used by scammers like Obinwanne Umunna (right)

Indeed, U.S. Army paratrooper Josh Porter — currently the holder of the unwanted title of most impersonated online account — has been used in 9,000 fake social media profiles by scammers relentlessly targeting British women.

Using apps and software to change everything from their voices to the location of their computers, they dupe the brightest of women.

Oxford-educated Jean Soriano was so traumatised by the deception — in her case, from a scammer claiming to be a U.S. Army chaplain calling himself James Sean Eckert — that she lost her job and tried to commit suicide.

‘I fell for him. I fell into his trap and he destroyed my life,’ says Miss Soriano, 47. ‘It was the first time since my father died in 1989 that I’d felt safe and wanted and loved. I’ve never felt love like it.’

Meanwhile, a retired primary school teacher — who asked to remain anonymous — told the Mail she’d lost £30,000 after being ‘brainwashed’ by a scammer who groomed her for two years.

A romance scam is now reported every three hours in Britain. One UK-based support group says an extraordinary 300 victims a day come forward in what it describes as an ‘unseen epidemic’, with each victim losing an average of £11,145.

Afghanistan veteran Josh Porter says he gets 30 messages a day from women who track down his real profile to confront him about being fleeced or because they believe he’s their true love. Around half, he says, are from the UK.

‘British women seem especially susceptible,’ he explains.

Con: A typical message to a victim of romance scam which is now reported every 3 hours

So who is charming them into handing over their life savings? Behind the photos are a ruthlessly organised gang of Nigerian criminals — nicknamed the Yahoo Boys, after the search engine that first provided free email accounts.

They spend years grooming victims, targeting older women lonely after divorce or bereavement. ‘Widow’ is a key word they search for on social media.

Yahoo Boys work in teams or ‘cells’, some based in Britain. Up to 40-strong, these teams of educated young men — often the sons of influential Nigerians, including police chiefs and politicians, meaning they are never prosecuted if caught in their home country — share ‘clients’.

One Yahoo Boy gave the Mail an extraordinary insight into how they hook women desperate for ‘another lover to spend their old age with’.

Obinwanne Umunna revealed that there are tens of thousands of fraudsters in Nigeria who skilfully ‘seduce’ British victims by ‘reviving romantic feelings’.

It’s so terrifying how easily you can be fooled 

Emotional blackmail is eventually deployed — often a claim to be ill or in financial trouble — to extract payments, often multiple times. Britons are one of the two most coveted targets — the other being Americans — with hooking one like ‘striking diamonds’, he adds. 

Umunna told how he earned ‘good money’ during six years as a Yahoo Boy at the University of Ibadan in Western Nigeria. Scammers start by scouring Facebook groups for elderly people, as well as dating sites such as OkCupid, eHarmony, LiveDateMatch and, he says.

So what makes the perfect target? ‘They’re older and want someone to talk to,’ reveals Umunna. ‘Their relatives are busy at work. Perhaps their partner has died. We reignite their passion and love. You bring back memories of the husband.

‘That is the level of seduction. You try to make the person believe in your future. Make the person believe in your soul.

‘When they fall in love with you, things are going to happen. You paint a picture for them — and then collect money from them again and again. That’s why we call them ‘clients’.’

Step one involves setting up fake social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat months in advance, to ‘avoid suspicion from your client’.

‘You look for pictures of unknown white people that you can’t find on Google and use [one] as your profile picture,’ says Umunna.

Care worker, Sharon Hughes, 52, from West Yorkshire tried to send £1,400 to a scammer

The con artists take pictures from Instagram, rather than Facebook, which show up on Google Image searches and could leave them ‘busted’.

Before initiating chats on messaging services such as WhatsApp or Google Hangouts, con artists often use the Android App store Google Play to buy cloning apps to get a UK or U.S. phone code.

Apps on Google Play can also change voice and appearance to further disguise identity, even during a video call.

‘Once you download the cloning app, you can take up the face of anybody you wish and the voice of any gender,’ says Umunna.

Fraudsters also use a Virtual Private Network to hide their computer’s location, as some dating sites won’t accept people from Nigeria because of the fraud associated with the country. With a few clicks, every element of their identity, location and true intention is concealed from unsuspecting women.

Women like Jean Soriano, from Solihull in the West Midlands, who was targeted in November 2018 after opening an Instagram account.

She fell in love with ‘James Sean Eckert’, a supposed U.S. Army chaplain who bombarded her with romantic messages, even asking her to marry him — before asking for cash. ‘They’re like terrorists,’ she says. ‘They have destroyed a lot of lives.’

With a gently greying buzz cut, James’s smile was warm. Apparently stationed as a Lutheran chaplain at a U.S. military base in Guam, he made contact on Instagram and encouraged Jean to install WhatsApp and Hangout apps and to talk via them.

‘He told me he had been searching for that one person,’ says Jean. ‘He got deeper and deeper very quickly. I really fell in love. I was very attached — mentally and emotionally.’

The fraudster told Jean his full ‘life story’ in phone conversations. Following his divorce in 2013, his daughter refused to speak to him, which he found painful. When not on service, he said, he lived in Cleveland, Ohio.

As for speaking via video-calling service FaceTime, that wasn’t an option — because, he explained, he had only a military-issue phone without video capabilities.

After winning her trust with weeks of romantic messages, ‘James’ started asking for money. ‘He told me he wasn’t due for leave for ten months — and the only way he could go on leave was if he paid an administration fee of $3,400 [around £2,818].’

Alarm bells ringing, Jean probed for more information. ‘It sounded dodgy. But he was expressing all these feelings for me. He encouraged me to take a loan to pay.’

Jean asked for evidence from his boss about the payment and began researching his claims online.

‘We started fighting. I became mentally and emotionally scarred.’

The con artists take pictures from Instagram, rather than Facebook, which show up on Google Image searches and could leave them ‘busted’

Jean, who completed postgraduate studies at Oxford University and worked in customer relations, says her work suffered because of the stress. ‘I was ashamed. It was very painful to know he was lying to me.’

Finally, desperate, she blocked his email and messaging accounts. While she had a lucky escape, she is so traumatised that she has twice taken an overdose.

Even though their actions often have terrible consequences, Umunna says no Yahoo Boy feels remorse. ‘You don’t feel guilty, you don’t feel guilty at all.’

Today, his advice — published online — is taken as gospel by Yahoo Boy recruits. He advises spending a minimum of three months sweet-talking before asking for money. ‘They’ll keep paying because they love you,’ he says, brutally.

Such intricate deceptions are a full-time job, with some Yahoo Boys simultaneously pursuing 25 targets. To avoid mixing up victims, they often call them only ‘babe’ or ‘honey’. 

With most of them using scripts and plagiarising love poems, working in a team, one acts as the fake lover, while another poses as, say, a doctor demanding payment after an emergency. Others pretend to be the fake lover’s young daughter, desperate for the British woman to be their ‘mum’.

Ruth Grover, 63, who runs a support group for victims called ScamHaters United, has seen the devastation caused first-hand. ‘Those with no children who desperately wanted them are told by the scammer: ‘I’ve got two kids who need a mother.’ Sometimes, the ‘kids’ even contact them on email and start calling them ‘Mum’ in messages.

‘It’s indescribably cruel. They will do anything to get money.’

Ruth says her group identifies around 1,000 scam sites a day, but, as soon as they’re closed, they ‘pop up again’ with people even getting contacted on the Fitbit fitness app.

One retired primary school teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, was approached on Facebook — and lost £30,000 after being ‘brainwashed’ by a man claiming to be a U.S doctor working for the United Nations in Afghanistan.

After two years of grooming, the ex-teacher, 74, from Wales, made payments to the man, who claimed that his daughter was sick and needed money for treatments.

She was even duped into working as a money mule, transferring cash to Nigeria in what police believe was a money-laundering operation. She eventually discovered that her online lover was using fake pictures of an innocent man in Australia.

Scammers start by scouring Facebook groups for elderly people, as well as dating sites such as OkCupid, eHarmony, LiveDateMatch and date-me. com

‘He was so convincing. Now, I find it hard to trust anyone,’ says the mother of one, who lost her husband 24 years ago.

‘My profile said ‘widow’. I later learned that’s what these people target.

‘He said his name was Dr Harry Williams, an orthopaedic surgeon in a refugee camp in Kabul. He told me his wife had died and his children were in boarding school while he was serving overseas.’ 

About a year into their correspondence, ‘Harry’ — whose ‘picture’ showed him to be handsome and balding with a relaxed grin — wrote to say that his daughter was ill.

‘I made many transactions from my NatWest account to accounts in the States,’ says the woman. She also agreed to forward payments to a businessman friend of his in Nigeria via Western Union and MoneyGram. When two payments were stopped, she contacted police, who revealed the scam.

So how do the Yahoo Boys get away with it?

Umunna says few fear getting caught. Most pay a percentage of takings to police. Bungs are also paid to bank staff to ensure that money transfers from victims go through smoothly.

Such is the acceptance of corruption in Nigeria that they are hailed as heroes by many and even celebrated in songs.

Nigerian culture ‘celebrates wealth without questioning the source of the money’, according to a report by Dr Oludayo Tade, from the University of Ibadan, who studies internet fraud.

Indeed, Yahoo Boys’ spending is so lavish that entire sectors of the Lagos economy — fashion retailers, hotels, luxury car sellers and nightclubs — apparently depend on them.

One Yahoo Boy dubbed ‘Mr White’ funded a life of luxury by tricking British women.

A fraudster’s online exploits had afforded his family exotic trips, including luxury breaks to the Middle East

Graduate Akpojivi Joel Onoriode, 29, lived in a lavishly furnished, seven-bedroom home. The father of two — whose wife spends so much she was nicknamed LePosh — earned his moniker thanks to his love of designer white clothes and cars, including a ZDX Acura, a £50,000 Mercedes Benz E300 and a Range Rover.

Police finally caught up with him recently and he admitted being in the ‘yahoo-yahoo’ business, with an offshore account in China. His online exploits had afforded his family exotic trips, including luxury breaks to the Middle East.

It’s luxury funded by women such as care worker Sharon Hughes, 52, from Brighouse, West Yorkshire. She was contacted on Facebook in April by a scammer using the name Franklin Arnold, who claimed to be an American working on a Scottish oil rig.

She says: ‘I was infatuated. He told me how pretty I was. He wanted to take me to Florida with him.’

After a week, he said he needed money and, because he was on the rig, couldn’t access funds.

‘I foolishly agreed and went to Western Union to pay him £1,400. It was a huge sum for me — far more than I could afford. But I was besotted.’

A problem with the recipient account prevented payment, and the photo purporting to be ‘Franklin’ was discovered to be a U.S-based hypnotist called Steve Jones, whose stolen image had frequently been used in similar scams.

‘It was devastating,’ says Sharon. ‘In your mind, you have built up so much. It’s terrifying how easily you can be fooled.’ 


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