Fraud’s Dark Matter: The Universe of Scams Most of Us Never Know About
Ana was emaciated when she arrived at the Brazilian embassy in Cairo.
An amateur volleyball player once upon a time in Sao Paulo, Ana’s tall frame was bent from the hunger, fear and humiliation she had endured for weeks in a village outside of Beni Suef.
Ana had come to Egypt for love – or, more precisely, for marriage, which was apparently a prerequisite for love. A whirlwind romance brought her from Brazil to a village on the banks of the Nile, where she was quickly wed, signed over power of attorney to her husband, had all her money transferred out of her accounts, and left for weeks to fend for herself in a place where she neither spoke the language nor had money to buy a plane ticket out.
One morning, desperate, Ana fled from the squalid house she’d been living in and begged anyone she could find with a car to take her to Cairo. “Cairo! Cairo!” was all she could communicate until, finally, an older man with a truck motioned to her.
Once in Cairo, she begged people on the sidewalk for directions to the Brazilian embassy. “Brasil! Embaixada!” until someone pointed her to a highrise building overlooking the water.
After having to plead the security guards just to be let in, Ana was asked to wait in a crowded reception. Eventually, she was allowed to speak with an embassy representative who told Ana, coldly, that there wasn’t anything Brazil could do to help.
“We have issued warnings about marriage scams,” the representative said. “There is nothing more we can do to help. You can wait here for a family member to pick you up, if you like.”
The Millions of Ways Fraudsters Ruin People’s Lives
It reads like Kafka, but stories like Ana’s are common. The Brazilian embassy in Cairo has processed a large number of such cases in the last five years.
But this isn’t a story about Egypt, or Brazilian scam victims, or even marriage scams in general. This is a story about the diversity of fraud that takes place every single day across the world.
Each day, thousands of desperate people encounter scammers, many of them desperate in their own right, and have their lives ruined. It’s the scale and breadth of this suffering that I want to highlight here.
We fraud professionals often have too narrow a view of what scams look like – romance scams, BNPL fraud, new account fraud, etc.
But if we really want to win the war against fraudsters, we need a more holistic perspective. We need to understand the systems and structures in our world that foster desperation, motivate people to commit horrific crimes, and nudge vulnerable people into victimhood.
Local Realities Shape Fraud Typologies
Let’s go back to Ana’s story because it can help us diagram a particular type of romance scam that is both devastating for victims and invisible to many.
Ana, just like millions of single people around the world, had a somewhat active dating profile on a handful of apps. Her work and her friends occupied much of her time, but she found moments to swipe through potential matches here and there. Mostly, though, she’d had bad experiences with dating and tried not to invest too much hope into anyone she matched.
Then, Ali appeared.
Even though they were separated by an ocean and had to communicate via Google Translate, Ana felt an immediate connection with Ali. He appeared to feel the same way because he sent long, passionate messages to her day and night. Ana was a little hesitant about Ali’s passion, but she chalked that up to a linguistic and culture divide.
When he floated the idea of marriage 10 days after they’d matched, it seemed rushed, sure, but also reflective of Ali, who clearly was a man who knew what he wanted and didn’t hesitate to go for it.
Ana suggested instead that she fly over to meet him first, but Ali said that was impossible. In Egypt, Ali told her, a single man and a single woman cannot just meet up. It’s not like in Brazil. “We must marry if we are to maintain this love,” was how Google translated his message.
Ana was torn. It seemed wildly irresponsible to agree to marry a man she’d never met – let alone shared a common language – but it seemed equally irresponsible to let an opportunity for love pass her by.
The next morning, she booked a flight for Cairo and made excuses to friends and family that she had found a deal at one of the resorts along the Red Sea.
We already know that Ali is the scammer in this story. But what motivated Ali? Why would he so thoroughly ruin another person’s life like this?
For money and, if Ali was lucky, a passport.
The people who run scams like this one are not wealthy, nor are they part of a larger criminal organization. They are just ambitious opportunists seeking some combination of money that they can blow, money that can buy them some comfort and financial security, and a passport that allows for more visa-free travel than Egypt’s.
The law in Egypt creates an enticing opportunity for such fraudsters. It’s true what Ali told Ana: They cannot be alone together in Egypt without being married. This is what allows fraudsters to lay their traps. The victim – likely vulnerable and lonely in their lives at home – might decide it’s worth taking this leap of faith, and they arrive in Egypt having talked themselves into a fairytale ending.
What the victims actually find in Egypt is cruelty.
The new husband takes control of the family’s finances – there are legal, cultural and religious arguments for why this should be so, if he needs to make those arguments – and thus the victim’s bank accounts. Legally, the victim cannot work. In the best-case scenario, she must rely on the family she has married into for food, clothing and shelter.
And so the victim is stripped of all agency. She has no money, no one she can trust, no guarantee of safety, not even a linguistic ability to navigate their surroundings.
In some cases, like Ana’s, the scammer simply takes off, leaving the victim – broke financially and broken emotionally – to fend for herself. And when the victim finally musters the courage to seek help, she’s often met with cool indifference.
Now, Scale That Up
Marriage scammers in Egypt account for thousands of ruined lives. But even those victims only represent a tiny fraction of the suffering that happens every day worldwide.
In the Philippines, there are scams that thrive in that country’s local contexts. The same goes for Canada, Austria, Pakistan, Botswana, Argentina and every other country on Earth:
- There are embassies in those countries’ capitals right now trying to process victims of romance scams.
- There are police departments in those countries right now fielding reports from people who have had their bank card information stolen.
- There are financial organizations in those countries right now struggling to assure people that their money is safe.
The scams that impact those countries’ citizens might not map so easily onto scams in other countries. The marriage scams happening in Egypt might not happen in Paraguay, for example, but there are realities in Paraguay that open the door to different fraud typologies.
That’s why it’s useful to think in terms of dark matter. There’s the observable universe of fraud – new account fraud, account takeover, friendly fraud, etc – and then there’s the larger unobservable universe whose scams follow patterns and realities that we don’t recognize.
The Lesson for Fraud Professionals
At the beginning of this article, I suggested a new, broader perspective of fraud was needed. Like many perspective shifts, this one has its roots in humility.
Intellectually speaking, we all have a horizon. Each of us can only conceive of a finite number of scams, cons, financial crimes or ways that another human being can be exploited.
But the world is much, much bigger than even our imaginations.
The ways people scam and get scammed depend on local contexts and local realities in which most of us have no fluency. So, we cannot anticipate all the permutations of fraud that will emerge from any given place.
To fight fraud at the scale it takes place, then, our own perspectives need to account for those blind spots.
I think developing such a perspective starts with a realization that we live in a world that both encourages crime and cruelty, and continues to produce scared, vulnerable people who can be lured into one kind of scam or another.
Our job is to protect the vulnerable, stop the criminals and keep in mind that both groups are products of the same reality.