Imagine being part of an international romance scam that’s bilking hundreds of people out of money. The worst part? You have no idea your face is being used to con people you’ve never met.
That’s what happened to retired Elkhart police detective Brett Coppins, now a private investigator who runs Coppins Investigative and Security Group.
According to the Colorado Attorney General’s office, a “Nigerian Internet Romance Scam” used photographs of United States Armed Forces members on online dating websites and social networking sites such as Facebook to defraud 374 victims from 38 states in the United States and 40 countries around the world out of more than $1 million.
Coppins said his first thought that something wasn’t right came shortly after December 2010, when he returned home from a stint in Iraq, where he worked as a civilian for the U.S. Defense Department. That’s when he received a Facebook message from a woman he’d never met.
“She said it had been going on for months and she was madly in love with this guy and absolutely devastated that it was all a scam,” he recalled.
Part of the message read: I’m not here to start trouble. I fell so hard for you. I needed to find you. Now that I have, it still hurts.
After at least 10 more messages from women he didn’t know, including one who used facial recognition software to track him down, Coppins realized someone used pictures of him from Facebook, Linked-In and other websites to build a phony online dating profile.
“That was kind of the first indicator that these women had really been devastated, just taken advantage of emotionally,” Coppins said.
That’s when he decided to put on his investigator hat. Through Facebook correspondence with some of the women who’d contacted him and using other resources, he realized part of what was happening.
“My understanding is they would look to see if these women were making comments about being recently widowed or things like that and they would send emails to them, personal emails, pretending to be wanting to build a relationship with them,” Coppins explained.
The man those women believed they were talking to online went by the name of Ronald Raines, and used photographs of Coppins.
In reality, according to a 27-page indictment from the Colorado Attorney General, Ronald Raines’ online profile and several others that used photographs of U.S. military members were being manned by scam artists in Nigeria who were also working with a mother and daughter from Brighton, Colorado, a city outside Denver.
“After an on-line relationship was established, the perpetrator would often send the victim fake military documents and personal photographs in order to convince the victim that they were truly a member of the U.S. military serving in a foreign country, usually Afghanistan,” the indictment reads.
According to court documents, the perpetrator would then begin asking the victim to send money to an “agent” in Colorado via Western Union or Money Gram.
Those “agents” were the 73- and 40-year-old Colorado women. Court documents also allege the 40-year-old frequently used her 16-year-old daughter to both send and receive wires containing stolen money. Then, according to the indictment, the women would keep 10 percent of the money and send the rest to Nigeria, Ecuador, Great Britain, India, United Arab Emirates and the United States.
The scam had allegedly been in operation since 2009. The women are facing felony charges of violating the Colorado Orgainized Crime Control Act including theft, money laundering, forgery, identity theft and criminal impersonation. They each face life in prison if convicted.
Coppins believes his photographs were taken by friends of African men he met during his time in Iraq then became friends with on Facebook. Even though his photo was one of many used in the scam, Coppins maintains he’s not a victim.
“You could tell [the women who contacted me] were really struggling and it was pretty difficult for me to sometimes deal with emotionally, knowing that my pictures, my photographs were being used to do something that really hurt some people,” he said.
When asked how people who have Facebook, Linked-In and other social networking profiles can protect themselves from falling victim to something similar, Coppins suggested using the maximum security settings on those networking websites to keep your photographs private and “Googling yourself,” or putting your name into search engines every once in a while to see what comes up.
“Welcome to the 21st Century. This is the world that we live in and it’s difficult,” he added. “Facebook is one of those things where people just don't take time to lock down. What they don't realize is that those photos can go anywhere and everywhere.”