Hundreds of foreign women are being ripped off by internet romance scammers based in Malaysia, some losing up to US$250,000, as the country becomes an epicentre for online crime perpetrated by Africans.
US officials said the mostly Nigerian conmen, who enter Malaysia on student visas, were taking advantage of the country's good internet infrastructure to prey on lonely, middle-aged women, wooing them on dating websites.The scams are more sophisticated than most Nigeria-based operations, and are helped by Malaysia's advanced banking system.
The victims are mostly American. US officials say Malaysian police lack the resources and expertise to tackle the problem and have yet to launch a single prosecution of a case involving a US victim.
Malaysian police were reported by local media last December as saying that the number of internet scam cases more than doubled last year with total losses of more than US$11 million. A total of 476 Africans had been apprehended for suspected involvement, the report said.
Tim Scherer, consul general at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, said complaints about such scams now made up more than 80 per cent of inquiries, with a dozen new cases reported every week.
Australians, Canadians and Europeans were also targets.
"These are not rich widows who are being preyed on. These are middle-class Americans who don't have this kind of money to spare," Scherer said. "It can really transform their lives in a very terrible way."
The US embassy estimated that US victims were losing several million dollars a year, with two women in the past 12 months losing more than US$250,000 each. There were more than 600 cases a year, and the amount lost by each victim averaged in the tens of thousands of dollars, it said. The actual figure of total losses was probably far higher, Scherer said, because many victims were embarrassed to come forward.
The highly sophisticated scammers often groomed victims for months. Large teams typically trawl dating or Christian websites, pretending to be a Western man who then gets into legal or business difficulties in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
A 59-year-old widow from Arizona said she had transferred US$260,000 to Malaysia. "Charles" - who claimed to love her - said he was being prevented from returning to the US by Malaysian bureaucracy which wanted hefty payments to negotiate. She went heavily into debt, and even flew to Malaysia to meet him. He never showed up, but a European woman claiming to be his lawyer managed to get another US$25,000 from her.