James Scott Geras can still remember the day he got the voicemail: If I ever catch you near my wife again, I am going to slit your throat.
It was 2015, the same year Geras had relocated to Palm Springs, California, about 480 miles south of his former home in San Francisco. He was alone in his art gallery’s office and had just started his workday by checking his messages. The male voice, tinged with a Southern-sounding accent, stopped him cold: I’m going to slit your throat.
Geras, who had never been in a fight in his life, eyed the front door of his 430-square-foot gallery. Anyone could walk in off the street. Can I get from my desk to the front door and lock it before someone comes in? he thought. There was nowhere for Geras to hide, so he darted to the door and locked it. His heart was pounding.
Geras was pretty sure he knew why the caller, who never showed up, was so angry. In 2014, he started to receive a flurry of Facebook messages from confused, mostly female strangers who thought that they knew him personally. The messages initially didn’t bother Geras; they were infrequent and it was relatively easy to clear up his mistaken identity. “I didn’t really think much of it,” Geras said. “Then it started happening more and more and more.”
By the time Geras listened to the threatening voicemail, he knew what was behind it. A number of women were convinced that they were in an online, romantic relationship with Geras, despite the fact that he is openly gay and had never been in touch with any of them before. The women claimed to have met him on a dating app, social media platform, or a less-expected online space, like an app-based word or puzzle game (Words With Friends is popular with scammers)—anything with a chat feature. What the women didn’t know was that the 50-something fellow with the goatee who smiled back at them in photograph after photograph wasn’t the same person they were speaking with. Their charming lover was a scripted character used by gangs of overseas fakers to bilk cash from unsuspecting romantics, and Geras’ stolen photos were the bait.
The messages to Geras began after the victims started to suspect something might be off about their long-distance beau—his stories didn’t line up, he asked for too much money, or one of their friends or family members expressed their suspicions. It wasn’t too hard to find the real Geras from his photos; a quick reverse image search leads right to content from his Instagram, where he posts under the handle “barnabysdaddy.” In one case, a woman told Geras that it was her daughter that uncovered the scam after hearing about her mother’s five-month, long-distance romance and doing “some researching.” Even still, it was too late. “He got everything I had except for my home,” she wrote of the scammer.
Some women thought they were corresponding with their would-be lover on a secondary social media account, while others were concerned that it was Geras who had stolen their boyfriend’s identity. But they didn’t seem dangerous—mostly, they were just rude. “The meanest messages that I get are from the religious people that I’m gonna go to hell,” he said. “One woman left this message saying, ‘I hope you die of AIDS.’” Another woman Geras spoke to confessed that, had he not been able to convince her of his innocence, she would have shown up at his door. Geras said she told him, “I was ready to get in my car with my family and come knock some sense into you.”
Geras shares his experience with a small subset of men, all of whom have been targeted by a very specific and insidious form of identity theft: Their real photos are stolen from their social media accounts and used by con artists in a ruse that began in the early days of social media. The women taken in by these schemes may be the primary targets, but the men whose images are used to lure them are the unseen collateral victims.
One of the earliest people to have his identity stolen on social media and used in a romance scam was likely 59-year-old Victor, whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons. Like Geras, Victor has received innumerable messages from women he has never met. Most of them, Victor said, find him after eventually learning how to reverse image search. All of the women were desperate to reach the man they loved—many intending to confront him.
“If you’re the same guy that friended [me] on Facebook, I must say you are a smooth talker,” one woman’s message began. “You shattered my trust in men and now I have to repay the loans I took out to help you. I never should have done that.”
Another wrote, “Now that I found you and can expose you, you do need to ‘make things right!’ I could show up in person!”
Victor has been hearing from romance scam victims since approximately 2007, and long ago figured out that he should have a form letter at the ready. “Hello,” he responds in a copy-and-pasted message. “If this response sounds somewhat standard, it’s because it is. I have to respond to notes like yours 2-3 times per month on average… First of all…..YES, I am aware that my photos have been stolen and are being used in romance scams on Facebook and many other social media and dating apps. I have [been] dealing with this [for] close to 10 years.”
Several times, Victor has found his photos posted on women’s Facebook profiles, along with loving captions. “‘Everybody, I’d like to introduce you to my fiancé,’” Victor recalled reading on one profile. “And a multitude of comments underneath it: ‘Congratulations, you two make a beautiful couple.’” At the time, Victor was married to his first wife, who had adjusted to the weirdness of the situation. “I was beside myself,” he said. “That’s when I really get upset, when my picture is not only out there with a fake profile, but when there’s women associated saying that they’re in a relationship with me or, in this case, engaged to me. It just blew my mind.”
Victor was a familiar face to Ruth Grover, who started the Facebook group ScamHaters United in 2014, to help expose scammers. In the years that she’s been running ScamHaters United—its “About” page promises to “SAVE EVERYONE FROM ROMANCE SCAMS”—Grover has amassed a staggering archive of fake profiles, and she has noticed patterns in the photos that scammers use. She remembered seeing Victor’s face “right from the beginning,” and said he is one of “the originals”—the first group of men whose photographs were used in romance cons. “[Victor’s photos] just worked for them,” she said. “He had a look. And there is a look.”
Essential to “the look” is what Grover calls an “open” face—based on the photos, this means a genuine smile and kind eyes. The most popular men are predominantly white and slim to medium in build. Victims targeted by romance scammers are, according to the FBI, “predominantly older widowed or divorced women,” and to lure in this demographic, scammers will choose men who, like Geras and Victor, have well-groomed, salt-and-pepper hair. Once con artists find a picture set that works, they are likely to stick with it. “There’s a guy called Richard Terry, and he’s a doctor in Australia,” Grover recounted of a man whose pictures have been in use since at least 2010. “There must be about six pictures of Richard, but there’s about 106 Photoshopped pictures of Richard on other people’s heads and things like that. Poor Richard. He is everywhere—still as popular as ever.”
One man’s photos will be used to represent a vast, but predictable, array of personae. Victor’s likeness has been attached to a stable of stock characters across the scammer universe: an American working in Africa to build an orphanage, an engineer far from home on an oil rig, a deeply Christian widower. Each persona presents as charming and exceptionally attentive, showering victims with love and promises as the scammer sets them up for the payoff. “You’re so beautiful that everyman [sic] would want to hold hands with you someday,” a scammer using Victor’s photos reportedly wrote to a victim. “If I were to present your picture in heaven, most of the Angels would hide their faces in shame.”
The FBI reports that victims of romance scams are typically “computer literate and educated,” but also “emotionally vulnerable.” Seniors are popular targets because they tend to “have more cash savings and a tendency to be trusting” and “less informed about online scams,” according to the National Council on Aging. Con artists will often go after people who post personal information about themselves on dating and social media sites, the details of which they can use to exploit and manipulate.
“Beware of the perfect gentleman,” warned a user documenting the use of Victor’s photos on a forum called Scam Victims United in 2013. “He used the fact that I am a Christian woman and my love for God to rope me in. We used to discuss the Bible in depth, pray together and talk for hours.” The user, who went by the handle “truthseeker,” sent the mystery man an undisclosed sum of cash before realizing she’d been scammed. “He runs a very sophisticated web of lies,” truthseeker continued. “Although I’m out of money, I will not seek vengeance on him. I will pray for his salvation, forgive him and move on.”
Victor theorizes that scammers first downloaded the photos from his Myspace page, back when the platform dominated the then-emergent social media landscape. The first scam using his pictures that he knows of was during the height of Myspace’s reign in 2007, as reported by a victim in the forum Romance Scams.
Visual identity theft has always been a crucial part of most romance scams. Early on, scammers figured out that photos of real men like Victor and Geras were believable vehicles for giving their nonexistent Romeos not only a face, but a life, and one that could be multiplied out thousands of times and across as many social media platforms. No need to cobble together a “family album” from a hodgepodge of staged stock images—not with the genuine article so readily available. There are plenty of appealing pictures to choose from: Victor in a tuxedo, standing side-by-side with his mother; Victor at a baseball game; Victor cuddling his niece (who is often passed off as his daughter). Or there’s Geras holding an adorable puppy, Geras grinning in sunglasses, Geras’ head badly Photoshopped onto the body of a ship technician.
Once the scammer has established a rapport with a victim, the money grab will follow. A popular scammer trick is to tell the mark that he has been victimized. Robberies are common, as are lost wallets, overseas strandings, grave physical danger, or near-death experiences (comas are popular). According to the FBI, it is common for scammers to pose as workers on building and construction projects outside the U.S., which makes it easier for them to avoid meeting in person and to ask their victims for help.
“They told me you were in jail,” one victim wrote to Victor on Facebook. She sent him screenshots of her communications with the scammer, which included a photo of Victor with his niece. In shaky English, the victim explained that she had been told that, “The girl in the photo was very bad in a hospital.”
In a scammer’s ideal scenario, a panicked lover will send money immediately, and that’s often exactly what happens. By the time victims reach the men whose pictures were stolen, the damage—emotional, financial, or both—has usually been done. Some victims genuinely didn’t understand that they had been scammed, others were furious.
With the scammer long gone, they had nothing left to do but direct their ire at the real men in the stolen photographs. One woman was convinced Victor himself was the perpetrator and got in touch with his then-workplace (a major financial institution) to report him. “I got a message from internal security saying, ‘We need you to call this bridge line immediately,’” Victor said. With Victor’s manager present on the line, the security officer proceeded to explain that Victor had been accused of fraud, and asked him to please respond.
“I took a deep breath and told my story,” Victor recalled. Luckily, the security team was well aware of romance scams, and he was able to return to work without issue. “That was the first time in all the years I’ve been dealing with this scam that [it] penetrated my professional life and not just my personal life,” he said. “Fortunately, that has not happened again since.” Victor now owns his own company.
In the popular imagination, romance scammers are singular individuals using fake photos or personas to trick someone into an online-only relationship or out of money. The idea of the lone fraudster made its way to MTV with the documentary series Catfish, based on a 2010 documentary of the same name, and coined the phrase “catfishing” to describe a similar kind of deceptive online dating. Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler immortalized Simon Leviev, a dashing Israeli con man who posed as a jetsetting diamond magnate and was accused of tricking women into giving him $10 million. But far more efficient and prolific operations than any lone wolf could pull off are carried out by scammer networks.
“This kind of crime operates in multiple business models,” explained Tim McGuinness, founder and director of Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams, also known as SCARS, a government-registered, non-profit victim assistance organization. One model is similar to call centers, with a corporate structure and hierarchy, while the other works like a multilevel marketing scheme. “Eighty percent of cyber-enabled criminals, which is the proper term for them, are corporate-industrial, in large-scale organizations,” said McGuinness. “The 20 percent on the bottom—the Yahoo boys—basically follow the Amway model.”
The name “Yahoo boys,” which describes fraudsters operating in more informal groups, comes from the email and messaging service that was popular when these scams began—many early ones were carried out using Yahoo Messenger. While the corporate, call-center scammers source a steady stream of fresh photos for their personae, scrappier outfits recycle pictures that have been used for decades already. “The Yahoo boys are still buying the same kits full of photos that have been used for the last 20 years,” McGuinness said. “We still see the same bad Photoshops and the same faces of men because the lower level guys that are coming in, they don’t know that they’ve been used a zillion times. When they discover [that], then they start harvesting photos themselves—just anybody that they can find three or four photos of.”
According to McGuinness, shadowy figures at the top of Yahoo boy pyramids rake in the most money (anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 a month), bolstered by charismatic middle managers who in turn take a cut from the younger, greener Yahoo boys at the bottom. Even the lowest tier can still make on average $2,000-5,000 a month, McGuinness said.
This kind of fraud is big business. In the past five years, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “people have reported losing a staggering $1.3 billion to romance scams, more than any other FTC fraud category.” In 2021 alone, that number was $547 million, which was a nearly 80 percent increase compared to the previous year. “The median individual reported loss in 2021 was $2,400,” reported the FTC. McGuinness believes that the reported total losses are a small fraction of the actual total, primarily due to a low reporting rate. “The FBI themselves suggests that the number of victims [who] report these crimes is below seven percent,” he said. “The FTC suggests that it’s closer to one to two percent.”
Finding the means to start scamming is relatively easy. Facebook, Telegram, and Snapchat are rife with public-facing groups for active and wannabe Yahoo boys. The common recruitment posts in public Yahoo Facebook groups, which anyone can peruse anonymously, get straight to the point: “GOOD DAY GUYS I NEED 20 SERIOUS GUYS THAT I CAN TRUST AND TEACH HOW TO MAKE MONEY ONLINE FROM SCAM BUSINESS (YAHOO) INBOX ME NOW IF YOU ARE INTRESTED [sic].”
Some Yahoo boys specialize within the broader market of romance scams. There are the Photoshop experts that create composite images, ID card brokers, and highly coveted “closers” who are brought in for a price specifically to coerce or threaten a victim into a payout. Any one of these specialists can be found advertising their services on social media. Scammers can also purchase Photoshopped ID materials and years-old social media accounts that they then load up with stolen photos—all to make their fake identities appear more legitimate. “SSN card and Drivers [sic] license available for editing,” reads one ad, complete with samples. “14 Years Dating Facebook account Available for sell [sic],” reads another. (Two of these three groups have since been removed from Facebook’s platform.)
“They’re not hiding,” Grover said. “They don’t need to hide, because they just know they’re not going to get caught.”
Many Yahoo boys are quite the opposite of discreet, filling their Instagram feeds with what is presumably evidence of their ill-gotten gains: designer bags, Balenciaga shirts, pools, and cars. “The kingpins, they’re flamboyant,” said McGuinness. “They’ll flash their purple Bentleys, gold metallic Ferraris, and piles of cash. These are noisy people that show off their wealth.”
Scammers bank on the fact that governments can do relatively little to combat cons perpetrated outside of their respective national jurisdictions. Romance scams are also difficult and expensive to prosecute, according to retired FBI agent Jerri Williams, who worked primarily within the financial crime sector during her 26 years on the job. She said that manpower, resources, and the fact that these are international cases limit the FBI’s ability to pursue most of them. “It all has to do with what is happening in that office, and what availability they have for someone to work [the case], and a lot of that is determined not necessarily by the FBI and the agents, but the US Attorney’s Office,” said Williams of each regional office’s decision to pursue a case. “Really the bottom line, being the US Attorney’s Office, is if the dollar value is high enough for them to justify pursuing that matter.”
Victims who have lost a few thousand dollars, or even a few tens of thousands, will most likely be out of luck, Williams said. While working out of the Philadelphia FBI office 14 years ago, she estimated that losses had to reach approximately $500,000 and above in order for a case to go forward. “[These scams] happen because they’re difficult to investigate,” Williams said. “There’s really no agency that’s concentrating on doing that.”
There have been some exceptions in which law enforcement has tried to apprehend romance scammers. Police in Belgium launched an investigation when they caught on to a scammer known as Franck Lemaire in May of 2019. Using photos of Geras, “Franck” had created a false passport and grifted a considerable sum—58,000 euros, or about $59,000 at current exchange rates—from at least one woman. He had also allegedly met one of his victims in person, a rare move for a romance scammer using stolen photos, and appeared to resemble Geras at least somewhat: He was described to the Flemish media outlet Het Nieuwsblad as an older white male who had “short gray hair and a beard and speaks French with a slight accent.” The police released a statement in November of 2020 stating that the photos that were used were of an American and urged possible victims to contact the authorities via a toll-free line. It is unclear if “Franck” was ever apprehended.
The men whose photos are stolen have little recourse other than to continuously report fake profiles across social media platforms. Geras has gathered 272 profile screenshots, an endless photo grid of his own face, since 2020. More pop up every day, and reporting the profiles is an exercise in futility—a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole.
“I would say 50 percent of the time they take the profile down, but the other 50 percent, they say it’s not violating our standards and they don’t see anything wrong, which just blows my mind,” Victor said of his experience with reporting his photos used in fake profiles. Victor believed that Facebook, which used facial recognition technology for features like auto-tagging, could better use the technology for cracking down on fraud. A Meta spokesperson, citing policies on fraud and deception and account integrity and authentic identity, stated that Facebook does “not allow romance or impersonation scams.”
Dating sites and apps have started to offer visual identity verification on a volunteer basis, which gives users the option of only perusing people with verified accounts. “It’s actually a pretty simple system,” said Daniel Mori, chief growth officer of Iris, an online dating platform that requires all members to be photo-verified. The initial heavy lift is done via automated, AI-trained photo comparison, followed by a manual visual check performed by human moderators. Mori said that expanding this verification to a platform like Facebook is possible, but would be costly. Trevor Wagener, Director of Research and Economics at the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), estimated that the per-post “baseline” cost of AI-driven moderation is $0.0004, while the per-post cost of human moderation is around $0.625.
Still, there are steps social media platforms can take that rely on automated data analysis rather than humans. “Social media should do more,” Mori said. “They should run a reverse image search on every image they have so that if an image has been previously used a million times, they can start to figure [it] out. The IPs are generally either VPN IPs or Nigerian IPs, or Indian, in some cases. I think those social networks can start to figure out that the images are being used fraudulently.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, maintained that it had a robust approach to romance scams and impersonation, including several education initiatives to warn users about romance scams, tools for reporting violations, and an “abuse-fighting team” dedicated to updating manual and automated systems for catching suspicious activity. “Our policies require people to use their real identities on Facebook and pretending to be someone else is an explicit violation of our policies,” wrote a spokesperson for Meta. “We’ve invested heavily in strengthening our technology to keep them off Facebook and we work with law enforcement to prosecute scammers. Keeping our platforms safe is a top priority, and we encourage people to report this behavior when they see it.” The company claimed to have removed 1.4 billion fake accounts, most of which were identified by its detection technology, in the second quarter of 2022 alone.
Still, Victor and Geras found that they had trouble getting all the profiles using their photos removed. McGuinness had a more creative suggestion for users whose photos are being used on social media without their consent. “What every one of the impersonation victims should be doing is filing a copyright complaint against Facebook,” he said. “It isn’t eclipsed by any other law, rule, or community standards bullshit. Copyright is copyright. The minute a copyright notification is given to one of these entities like Facebook, they’re legally liable if they fail to act within a reasonable period of time. Not only liable, but for punitive damages for every harm of that victim.”
“Early on, I was angry,” Victor said. “I felt violated. I felt I was a victim of the scammers.” His sister found a profile using his pictures on Match.com when he was still married to his first wife. “My own sister thought it was me using a different name and then having an affair,” Victor said. Another time, a Brazilian woman sent his second wife a message on Facebook while she and Victor were on a beach enjoying their honeymoon together. They were able to remedy the situation using Google Translate.
Geras has also found himself in a similar position. “In the beginning, people would be like, ‘Well, this is your fault,’” Geras said. “‘You shouldn’t have anything on social media. People are using your pictures.’ And I’m like, ‘Excuse me. I’m not gonna move to a deserted island or live my life as a monk. That’s just not gonna happen.’”
Scam victims have also approached Geras in person. In one instance, a woman and her friend stopped in at Geras’ gallery in order to see the real man in the photos. One of the women, who had been the victim of a scam, proceeded to ask Geras for a hug. He declined.
Geras decided to stop engaging with victims because even after he convinced them that they had been scammed, they sometimes wanted to strike up a friendship with him. “I can’t even tell you. I would spend an hour on the phone sometimes talking to these women, just saying, ‘That’s not me,’” he said of the women who were still convinced that they felt like they knew him. “I’m like, ‘You don’t know me! You’ve been talking to a fake me.’”
Victor’s continued dealings with the interminable stream of lovesick women led him, eventually, to acceptance. “I realized that the scammers are really not doing anything to hurt me personally,” Victor explained. “The way I put it is: I am not a victim of this scam. I am a victim of the victims. Because my pictures are out on the internet, I know they can be used for lots of different things. But if the victims didn’t reach out to me, I’d know nothing about this.” He’s had to accept the idea that the scammers may use his photos indefinitely and that he can’t let it affect his life. “There’s no end in sight,” he said. “I’ve resolved [sic] myself long ago, that this might not ever end.”
But even if technological moderation was more aggressive, there are limits on eradicating fraud altogether. Even just preventing scams presents a substantial challenge, since so much of their efficacy is based on exploiting the base set of emotions, needs, and instincts that we as humans all share. “I’ve been doing this for 31 years,” said McGuinness. “You cannot stop victims because the methodologies of the criminal works. It always has.” (Meta’s spokesperson was quick to point out that fraud and impersonation pre-dated the internet.) The victims, Grover concurred, don’t want to see that they’re being scammed. “They’re not looking for proof that he’s not real; they are looking for proof that he’s real.” The lure of the perfect gentleman is too great.
Even when the ruse is revealed, many victims are unwilling to let go. The truth triggers an emotional whiplash—the promise of a soulmate, a new, fulfilling life, and mutual trust is suddenly lost, leaving the intense feelings of love behind. Once found, the real man in the photos becomes a surrogate for the fantasy. “Some of them would reach out to me and [say], ‘Now that I know what the real person is like, are you still single?’” Victor said. “‘Can I meet you? Can I FaceTime you?’”