Nat Geo’s Trafficked With Mariana Van Zeller: Romance Scammers In West Africa Use Black Magic To Cast Love Spells On Victims
That’s how far online tricksters would go to score a fat paycheck, as Mariana van Zeller finds out on her black market-themed docu-series.
Police added that at least 90 per cent of scams originate from overseas: these virtual swindling Casanovas can be operating in as near as Malaysia to as far as — as revealed on Season 2 of the National Geographic docu-series Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller — in West Africa.
In the ‘Romance Scams’ episode, the Los Angeles-based, Portuguese-born investigative journo’s search for cyber-romance fraudsters takes her to Kumasi, a city in southern Ghana, where she meets a gang of tenacious sweet-talkers who make a killing from preying on lovelorn targets — or ‘clients’ as the victims are called — on dating apps and social media.
One trickster, who goes by Odo (Ghanaian for 'love'), claims he has duped 22 women in the US, Canada, Germany, Poland, and even — wait for it — Singapore. Our fair city would get namechecked again by another hustler. “I remember perfectly well when [Singapore] was mentioned,” says van Zeller, speaking to 8days.sg via Zoom from her LA home. “One of the cases was a scammer who had been in a relationship with a woman in Singapore and he had scammed her for a lot of money.”
She continues, “I do think that fact that you guys speak English in Singapore and you are better off in many ways than many countries in West Africa, where the scams take place, [make you easy marks]. We heard also a lot about countries in Europe, even in South America. The reports you read about scamming are usually targeting Americans, but I was surprised by how widespread it is — as long as you master the language of whatever the country [the victims are from], you’ll be able to scam people.”
In the episode, van Zeller also witnesses first-hand how these well-funded and technologically savvy bluffers operate. Their MO includes using scripts — like “choose-your-own-adventure books" — to bait ‘clients’ based on their responses in text conversations.
And what if the unsuspecting love-seekers request for a live video call? No problem. They would arrange an online meeting in a rented apartment and pass that off as their fake lovers’ home Anytime proof of existence is, a team of forgers will provide the necessary documents at the drop of a hat.
If all else fails, they would sometimes turn to a higher power: Black magic. “I print a picture of Michael and Michael’s name and present it to the priest,” says one deceiver who has trouble convincing a guy named Michael from Virginia, US, to send him money. “The priest will use the picture and change Michael’s mind.” (Spoiler: it didn’t work — at least not on Michael.)
Do these grifters ever feel remorse for conning people out of their money and the fallout they caused? Yes, and no. “[One scammer] said — this is my favourite line in the episode — it’s easier to sleep on a guilty conscience than it is with an empty stomach,” says van Zeller.
Oftentimes, poverty drove them to do it. “It’s definitely easy money but it’s also a lot of times the only money for a lot of these young people. We spoke to people who graduated from school and they still couldn’t find a job. When everyone around them is making money and is able to provide for their families by scamming, it’s really hard to say no.”
“What we realised that as soon as we started filming was that there had been an explosion of black markets because of the pandemic,” says van Zeller, who began filming Season 2 in June 2020, amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.“Whenever this is an economic downturn, people are losing their jobs, they had to figure out a way to bring food back to their families and a lot of those people are turning to the black markets.”
The rest of the 10-part series sees van Zeller exploring the underworld’s most dangerous black markets — from weed dealers to carjackers to white supremacists. “Black markets and grey markets make up half of the global economy,” says she. “You open a newspaper or turn on your television today and see how much coverage is given to the black and grey markets, there’s barely any coverage and yet they have an enormous impact on our lives, whether it’s drugs, guns, white supremacy or over-fishing. Yet again, we have so little knowledge about them.”
Getting access to those clandestine networks, however, is a pain in the butt. “A lot of people have no intention of letting anyone shine a light into those worlds,” says van Zeller. “So you think it might be easier [now that we had done two seasons], but it actually hasn’t.
But one thing that has happened, that is really interesting, is that I’ve started receiving messages from all over the world with story ideas, and with people who are actually involved in trafficking one way or another, inviting us to film with them. You can never underestimate the power of television to get to people who want their 15 minutes of fame.”
What does she have in store for Season 3? “We absolutely have plans to go to Asia more than once, actually,” says van Zeller, who last visited the Golden Triangle for Season 1's wildlife trafficking episode.
“I can’t tell you what and where but it’s going to happen. Be my guest if you have story ideas for anything you think we should go investigate, let us know.”
The ‘Romance Scams’ episode of Trafficked airs Sun (Feb 27) on National Geographic Channel (Singtel TV Ch 201, StarHub Ch 411), 10pm; encores on Mon, 1.55am & 6.05am. Season 1 of Trafficked is streaming on Disney+. For more on scams, visit ScamAlert.
Photos: National Geographic Channel