Johannesburg- How does one go from being a successful business owner and a multi-millionaire to sleeping in a shelter for homeless people?
And all this in the space of just eight months.
This is the question Sandra Smith (not her real name) asks herself daily, after she fell for a romance scammer. The former Joburg resident, who now lives in Cape Town, ran a successful PR company and is an author, but all that could not protect her against the charms of a trained conman.
Today she’s R2 million poorer. What seems like a carbon copy of the Tinder Swindler Netflix series, is the life of Smith, only much less glamorous after she was duped out of money, jewellery, furniture and art totalling in the millions.
The 62-year-old divorcee said she was not in the market for romance when she was approached online by a man who called himself Craig Allen.
“I wasn’t some 19-year-old that didn’t know what was happening. I was not on any dating sites. I wasn’t looking for anyone,” she said. Smith’s Prince not-so Charming claimed that he lived in Camps Bay, a postal code often used by romance scammers.
“We made plans to have Christmas lunch at the Joburg Country Club where we would meet for the first time. He was supposedly in Italy for the holidays and was flying back to SA to spend Christmas day with me. I believed him,” she said.
True to form, the wily scammer was a no-show for lunch. A few days later Smith received a call to say that his Standard Bank account was hacked and that he needed money. Already weary, Smith reluctantly sent R5 000 to her beau.
“I actually blocked him on whatsapp but he contacted me from another number and he became quite aggressive. I even went to the Italian Embassy and verified his passport details. This is how professional these guys are,” she said.
Craig Allen, or the person pretending to be Craig Allen did not exist. The picture used belongs to an attorney from Lebanon.
By this time, Smith had given thousands to her love interest and feared that if she stopped forking out cash, she would lose whatever she had “invested”.
“I didn’t tell anyone about Craig, not even my family. They groom you so that you form an emotional attachment. I eventually had to come clean to my brother and told him what happened,” she said.
In all this time, Smith and Allen only communicated via voice calls and emails. They never video-chatted or met in person.
When Smith eventually saw the wood for the trees, Allen was long gone and she was not only heartbroken but had also lost everything she owned. Smith holds a Master’s Degree in English and French and was almost admitted to a mental institution when her troubles reached family ears.
“I was on all kinds of pills and tranquillisers. Now I am trying to rebuild my businesses. My brother pays my rent and I live off my Sassa grant. How could this have happened to me?” she laments.
But it’s not only lonely hearts that are being targeted. Renowned criminal attorney William Booth said recently there have been a spate of incidents where people are extorted by a syndicate.
“They demand sums of money or they will disclose personal information or even very confidential data. Victims pay sums of money but these people do not go away and continue to demand money. They even threaten to cause physical harm,” he said.
Booth warned that in many cases where he was approached for help, scammers pretended to be gangsters.
“People are also told they can have cases dropped if they pay and are sent copies of dockets. I suspect that in some cases the police may even be involved,” he said.
NPA Western Cape spokesperson, Eric Ntabazalila said after an accused has been found guilty and had his/ her assets frozen, the victims of romance scams can claim for compensation when the case has been finalised.
In the case of Sandra Smith, Hawks spokesperson, Carol Mulamu said Fortune Nomfusi, 31, was arrested in January this year at Makhaza in Khayelitsha on charges of fraud and money laundering. The value stands at R1.9 million in losses.
“The complainant was dating online using a Facebook account. She met a man who pretended to be in trouble and kept on borrowing money from the complainant until she realised that she was scammed. The complainant made payments into 10 other accounts in different banks.The suspect appeared at Palm Ridge Specialised Commercial Crimes Court on January 24, 2022. The accused was granted bail of R3 000 and the case was postponed to March 25, 2022,” Mulamu said.