Several women seeking love, who have been targeted by online scammers, as well as one man who spent prison time with men who engaged in this illegal ‘hobby’ share their stories with OC Media.
‘One day I got a random call from a police investigator, who was requesting that I come for an interrogation because I was in contact with a scammer’, 38-year-old Gayane (name has been changed) told OC Media. She went to the appointment shortly after receiving the call.
‘In the taxi, I was trembling on the way.‘I was wracked with uncertainty’, she recalled.
When the investigator named the alleged scammer, Gayane did not recognise the name. She did not know that man, she told the investigator, nor had she ever had anything to do with a scammer in her life.
After a few questions, the investigator mentioned the phone number through which Gayane and the alleged scammer communicated and everything became clear: she fell for the wiles of a con artist who sought to extort her.
In some ways, Gayane was lucky, unlike some victims, her financial losses were negligible. The exact number of such scams carried out each year in Armenia remains unclear with many victims refusing to come forward due to threats of blackmail or embarrassment — but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is more common than many think.
‘I knew the owner of that phone number by another name. We got acquainted through a social network’, Gayane said. ‘We had never met in real life.’
The alleged scammer had always ‘found an excuse’ to avoid meeting in person, as a result Gayane mostly chatted with him over social media, and sometimes over the phone.
When they spoke on the phone, the man would bring up that he did not have enough money on his sim card and asked Gayane to help him top it up. She obliged.
‘I honestly did not even realise that he had called specifically for me to top up his phone number’, she said.
From the investigator’s words, it became clear to Gayane that the man she was speaking with was in prison and that he had registered accounts on social networks in order to befriend women and extort money from them.
‘It turned out that as a victim I was in a pretty good position’, Gayane recalled. ‘I’d just topped up his phone for a small amount.’
Nara and Levon
Twenty-five year old Nara dated ‘Levon’ online for two years. ‘I was head over heels in love’, she told OC Media, despite never having met him in person. ‘I was ready to do anything for him’, she said.
Nara and her ‘boyfriend’ got acquainted through Facebook. First, he sent her a friend request, then she accepted, he started liking her photos, and one day he sent her a personal message.
‘When I received the message, I felt so lonely at that moment that I was even happy that there was someone I could just talk to and not think about anything’, she said. At first they communicated ‘as friends’ but quickly, Nara began falling in love.
She would ‘count the seconds’ between each time he would reach out to her. They never met in person, the man’s explanation for this was distance. Nara lived in Yerevan, while he lived in the city of Gyumri. Despite never having met in real life, their conversations even turned to talk of marriage. ‘It seemed to me that I had found my prince’, she said.
But there was a darker side to all of this as well. Nara and Levon agreed that she would get his permission before going out. ‘I obeyed him’, she said. ‘ I became a kind of a zombie’.
Meanwhile, she repeatedly asked him to go on a date in person. He always rebuffed her, telling her that he worked seven days a week as ‘a manager of a very serious company’.
In the second month of their courtship, Nara received an unexpected letter from her virtual boyfriend. He said that he wanted to forget ‘all other women’ before they met, and that she should send him a nude photo. Nara felt something was wrong, and asked him to meet her in person first. Again, he refused.
Not knowing what to do, Nara turned to Facebook. She shared her story in a group for women seeking advice. ‘There were experienced women who wrote to me that he might be in prison, and he wanted the nude photo for a trap, so that he could extort money by blackmail’, she said.
But her feelings for Levon remained strong, so instead of a nude photo, she sent him one of herself in a swimsuit. He was not satisfied and tried to convince her to send him a nude photo. His demands became more and more aggressive.
‘He threatened to post my photo in a swimsuit in public if I did not send him another photo’, Nara recalled. When she refused again, he threatened to use photoshop to alter the swimsuit photo to make her appear naked if she did not send him money.
‘I wrote to him that I would go to the police. He immediately deleted his account and disappeared’, Nara said. ‘I am very surprised I took that step. It was like an act of heroism for me.’
Cops and scammers
For some men in Armenia’s prisons, tricking women online is a hobby.
‘Some people just communicate, some people try to benefit financially from that communication’, a 35-year-old man who served three years in prison and requested not to be identified, told OC Media.
His cellmate, he said, would spend time trying to chat up women on the internet. ‘He found one girl, then assured her that he was on a business trip abroad and that as soon as he returned, they would get married’.
But the young woman was not as naive as her would-be scammer hoped and ‘she did not give him a penny’.
According to Anush Gabrielyan, a social worker at Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, had the young woman paid his money or gave him access to any personal information, she would likely never go to the police.
Many victims of such scams blame themselves, she said. ‘Girls often think that they have voluntarily talked to strangers, voluntarily sent photos and now if anyone knows, they will be ashamed’.
Often the victims of such scams are also minors, who are easier to manipulate.
Nevertheless, when such crimes are actually reported the perpetrators may be caught and punished. Gabrielyan recalled one case of a 15-year-old girl who was blackmailed into having sex by a man she met online. Despite her fear, she told her school psychologist what had happened and the two of them went to the police.
The man was convicted and sentenced to 8 years in prison.