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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A Nigeria-based romance-scam outfit, dubbed Scarlet Widow in a new report, has been bilking lonelyhearts of their savings since 2015.

Why it matters: In the abstract, people often dismiss email scams as a punchline they are somehow above. In truth, they are a billion-dollar crime paradigm preying on the gullible and savvy alike. And romance scams have particularly tragic dimensions.

  • One victim of Scarlet Widow — a religious Texas man who believed he was corresponding with an aspiring model training in Paris named Laura Cahill — was swindled out of at least $50,000; $10,000 of which it appears he obtained by stealing from his stepfather.
  • "Based on what we see, his friends and family brought up concerns. In each case, he pushed it aside and thought he and Laura were meant for each other," said Crane Hassold, senior director of threat research at Agari, the email security firm that profiled Scarlet Widow. "It really shows the psychological damage these scams cause."
  • Even with those warnings, when that victim lost contact with Laura, he became increasingly desperate, emailing "I JUST WANT TO TALK TO MY BABY. I CAN WAIT FOR YOU BUT I NEED MY BOO."

Agari uses unique methods to gain access to groups and investigate email scams and scammers — ones we've been asked not to discuss to maintain their effectiveness. That allows the company to create unique profiles of email scam groups like Scarlet Widow.

The firm identified several of the fraudsters involved, and says it will announce their identities later this month.

The moniker "Nigerian scam" is more than a nickname. Agari's research found the Scarlet Widow group, like 90% of email scams, actually does originate in Nigeria.

The FTC issued a warning Wednesday about romance scams in general. But while that report warned that the elderly are particularly vulnerable to these scams, Scarlet Widow also looked elsewhere.

  • The group initiated relationships through a variety of personals sites, including the largest services, but also via specialty sites, like ones for people with disabilities, for farmers, and for divorced women.
  • Scarlet Widow often targets religious people. Hassold suggests that might be because "these are people who put faith in things they have not seen, being asked to put faith in a person they will never see in person."
  • "It gives you a glimpse into what other groups scammers think are vulnerable," he added.

As Agari re-created Scarlet Widow's past scams, it was also able to identify how the group evolved over time.

  • The group's other fake personas included Sterling Michael, a 43-year old captain serving in Afghanistan, and Britney Parkwell, a fabric saleswoman living in San Jose.
  • Scarlet Widow improved its character work over time — "more backstopping, more detail and more realism," said Hassold.
  • The group, like many of its peers, has dabbled in other forms of email scams as well, but dating is the one that stuck.

The psychological component of romance scams make it harder for victims to snap out of them than with other forms of email fraud, Hassold said.

Go deeper: Love's multimillion dollar scam industry

Go deeper

Jan. 6 committee subpoenas Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell

Rudy Giuliani. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot released its latest round of subpoenas on Tuesday evening, this time focusing on several of former President Trump's lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, and former adviser Boris Epshteyn.

Why it matters: The panel said the four individuals subpoenaed were involved in efforts publicly promote Trump's unfounded claims of election fraud as well as efforts to "disrupt or delay" the certification of the election's results.

3 hours ago - World

U.S. warns Russia may attack Ukraine from Belarus

Belarus dictator AlexPhoto: Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images

The U.S. believes that Russia may use joint military exercises inside Belarus as cover for an invasion of Ukraine from the north, according to a senior State Department official.

Why it matters: New deployments to the Belarus-Ukraine border in the coming weeks — in addition to the 100,000 Russian troops already encircling Ukraine from the north, east and south — could allow Russia to open up a new front less than 100 miles from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

6 hours ago - Health

Government website for free COVID tests launches early

COVID-19 rapid at-home test kits. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The website where Americans can request free, at-home rapid COVID-19 tests from the government launched Tuesday and is now accepting orders.

Driving the news: The website went live in its beta phase and is operating at a limited capacity a day before its official launch. Every home in the U.S. is eligible for up to four COVID tests, according to the website.

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