Our friend is grieving, and possibly getting scammed. What can we do?
May 6, 2014 8:04 AM   Subscribe

A good friend was in an online relationship with a European woman for nine months. She was supposed to arrive in our country next weekend. On Saturday morning, he learned that she died in an avalanche. As details pile up, it has become clear to us that this woman never existed. The charade seems to be continuing and we are not sure how to proceed. Details inside.

Things we know that have led us to conclude that the woman (we’ll call her A) was Not Real:

- They met through a mutual acquaintance that our friend has met only once, a few years ago. Acquaintance is an elderly woman. A was in her twenties. A claimed to have no email address, skype id or facebook. She used the acquaintance’s accounts to email/skype him.
- They largely communicated via phone or text. She used a phone number from our country, not hers. She ostensibly lived in Europe/the US for the duration of their relationship.
- When they skyped, only he had his webcam on. He never saw her in a skype call, and he never met her. He only has photos but those could be of anyone.
- She fits the classic profile for fake internet romance instigator – constant positive reinforcement, moneyed and accomplished (ran an NGO, several businesses and was a med student), had a slew of personal issues that she needed him to help her with etc etc
- He heard of her death via text. The only call from her family was from her number (again, number from our country, not theirs) and he barely heard a voice because most of the call involved crying. Texts are still coming from her family on and off, consoling him.
- Google brings up a giant blank for her name, and the names of her family members.

If this story ended with a death, then we would be treating it as such and not raising any alarms but it seems to be going further than that. Here’s what is worrying:

- There is talk of an inheritance, and businesses that she has left for him to run. There are no details of any of these.
- She apparently wanted him to take over her NGO. He is considering moving cities to do this. We have looked up this organization – it makes no mention of her whatsoever.
- It’s not farfetched to assume the emotional scam may escalate to a financial scam. Despite the general theme of this girl being very well off, who knows what requests might emerge? The inheritance line especially could lead nowhere good.
- All roads lead to the mutual acquaintance. Her accounts. She owns the NGO. She is the same nationality as the fictitious A but knows our country well. She lives in the city he is considering moving to. Her facebook shows she organised an event exactly like one A supposedly hosted at the same time, a few months ago. We don’t know if it is her phone number but we hope to get a chance to look it up soon.

Our friend is shattered and he definitely does not suspect a thing. He is not close with his family. We live in a small town, and the support system here is limited (no therapy available). We are unsure of how to proceed. Our questions:
1. Do we tell him what we suspect? We can't offer any proof!
2. If we should tell him - how? And how much? It would be really helpful here to hear if anyone has dealt with a similar situation in the past.
3. Should we reach out to the acquaintance directly? We were thinking maybe to ask for more details of the funeral that she apparently attended. Would it be unwise to do this?
4. He has been talking about how he has nothing to live for now, and how he will spend the rest of his life trying to make her proud. What is it going to do to him if this turns out to have been a fake relationship all along?

Any other suggestions you may have are very much much appreciated. Throwaway email - mefiquestion672(at)gmail.com

Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
This article, The Life and Death of Jesse James, may offer some perspective for you.
posted by Melismata at 8:07 AM on May 6, 2014 [10 favorites]

he's being catfished by a fraudster. there's tons of stuff on the internet about this, show him this thread first and let him go from there.
posted by bruce at 8:10 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

You wouldn't be a good friend if you didn't tell him your suspicions. You don't need absolute proof - lay it out like you did here, and he can draw his own conclusions (or not; at that point you have no control over what he does).

I would not contact the acquaintance directly; tipping them off may lead to them ratcheting up the scam on your friend. Depending on what law enforcement is like in your jurisdiction, it may be helpful to contact them.
posted by desjardins at 8:24 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Weird thought here, but can you do some googling to see if any avalanche actually happened in the area where they say she died? That should be fairly easy to do.

There's something VERY off about this whole situation.... surely your friend must have SOME idea that there's something not quite right about this?
posted by JenThePro at 8:31 AM on May 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

She's a successful, internationally traveled director of an NGO who died young and tragically. There should be some sort of obituary/memorial notice posted somewhere at least semi-public. Why isn't there?

If she wants your friend to take over the NGO, then he should be forwarded all the relevant legal documents to review before making a move. Why can't he see these? Why can't he see the legal documents for the inheritance?

Why, no seriously why, would a person in her 20s not have an email address? Why would a successful NGO director person not have an email address?

What happens if you do a tineye reverse image search for the photos he has of her?

What happens if you google the elderly mutual friend person?

Is it possible to call the NGO directly and talk to them?
posted by phunniemee at 8:42 AM on May 6, 2014 [45 favorites]

Yeah, first thing I thought of is that a person running several businesses and an NGO without an email address in 2014 is functionally impossible. And the other thing is that you can TinEye her images and see if they come up elsewhere.

If that doesn't make him realize something stinks here, maybe it would help him to realize that there's no fucking way a successful NGO would be handed off, upon the death of the person running it, to her internet boyfriend of nine months whom she's never met in person.

And as above: There should be, on the internet, some record of her existence, of her death, or of the avalanche that killed her.

You'll get some good advice here but I think you make your case pretty strongly even just in the OP. But please be aware that he currently has access to the same information you do - information which makes it a slam dunk that she's a fraud - and he's still not drawing that line. If he hasn't admitted it to himself yet, it's because he doesn't want to.

As far as what it'll do to him - don't know. He may find it crushing, or he may find it liberating that his love didn't die, because she didn't exist. Who knows.

At the very least, I would advise him in the strongest possible terms to refrain from moving to another city or anything like that without seeing legal documentation either for the inheritance or supposedly for him taking over the NGO.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:54 AM on May 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Do you think it might help if he watched stories of other people in similar situations? (For some people, that would backfire and make them even more convinced that what they experienced was different; you know your friend, so use your own judgment on that one.)
posted by jaguar at 8:55 AM on May 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would sit down with him and gently lay it all out.

"Sweetie, I know you're grieving and what I'm about to say may make it worse, but I'm going to say it in the interest of saving you further heartache. I have strong suspicions that Greta may never have existed at all. It sound too much like insert internet scam here, for me to feel comfortable, especially now when all of a sudden, people are coming out of the woodwork to ask you for money. Even if they haven't yet, I believe that they will."

Then show him that there's no internet presence at all for the NGO, that there's no listing when you Google her name, etc.

Encourage him to change all of his passwords right in front of you. Access to email and facebook means access to banking info and other scary stuff.

No way around it, it's going to suck, but better for him to be angry than stranded in another country with no money.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:59 AM on May 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

This absolutely reeks of the type of scam Melisama and Bruce mentioned. Sometimes people do this sort of drek for fun, sometimes for financial gain. Regardless, I would NOT make any sort of life changes based on any of the sketchy info 'A' seems to have provided.

oh, and RB nailed it too.
posted by Jacen at 9:01 AM on May 6, 2014

Absolutely warn your friend. He sounds like a naive, impressionable person. Once he gets physically closer to that acquaintance, this woman might manipulate him into doing all sorts of things.

However, his grief is real. He just lost someone he loved - they texted, emailed, skyped. Those interactions probably meant a lot to him and are now part of the past. Be gentle with him.
posted by travelwithcats at 9:03 AM on May 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

It is very, very likely that while he was extremely willing to believe anything she said, he will be the exact opposite to anything you say that opposes it.

He has to want help, basically. If he won't wake up, at least try to get him to talk to you/other friends or family before he #1 gives out money #2 makes plans for a life altering move or event.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:07 AM on May 6, 2014

Is it possible you could confront the suspected fraudster? Maybe that's a stupid idea but if anything could burst his bubble....

Yeah I saw this on TV.
posted by grobstein at 9:08 AM on May 6, 2014

This is one of those times when the duties of friendship can be tough. Your friend is likely to respond with denial and anger, but your act of telling him may keep from losing his money, making a poor life decision, and getting sucked further into the drama of this phony relationship. I think you have to tell him and that you should do so in a calm and methodical way. Explain that you are doing so out of your concern for him and his well-being. Don't be surprised if he reacts angrily and try hard not to respond to his anger with outbursts of your own.
posted by Area Man at 9:14 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I feel instinctively that your friend will not want to listen if you try and talk sense into him, too.

Perhaps you could try an opposite tack - gently go along with it for now, and offer to accompany him on a trip to this new city, to meet with someone at this NGO and get more information. Or perhaps you could offer to make phonecalls for him to get more information.

The way I see it, the more you can put the pressure on the fraudster, the more likely they are to cave in some way, but I don't think he will thank you for doing it in an openly hostile way. It might work better under the guise of help.

I apologise if this sound manipulative. I am worried for your friend too and I think, in your situation and in the face of what sounds like cruel and shameless emotional manipulation on the fraudster's part, I don't think I'd hesitate to use a little in return.
posted by greenish at 9:15 AM on May 6, 2014

No proof? There's plenty of proof. It couldn't be more obvious that this is a scam, than if the dearly departed's name had been Scammy McScammerson, from Scamville, Scamahoma. There is just no such thing as a business owning, NGO-running med student with no email address. The death of the "girlfriend" is a unique next-level twist I haven't heard of before, I'll grant that.

Here are some resources on online "romance" scams; here is a story from a victim, he should probably read it.

RB and Area Man have it right, your friend needs tough love right. Try asking him: is there one single solitary shred of independent evidence that this person ever existed? I.e. video of her talking, a driver's license, any online account in her name, an obituary, anything that couldn't be easily produced by the elderly mutual acquaintance?

He'll figure it out eventually, though, one way or the other.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2014 [15 favorites]

The 2007 article Melismata linked to certainly sounds relevant. And here's the 2011 story of how it ended up, legally.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:28 AM on May 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your poor friend. I've been a member of a couple of internet communities where this happened, and even when it was pretty obvious -- no obituary, no funeral listing, no patient of that description in the hospital, no record of an individual of that name ever existing -- a lot of people refused to accept it. They got really really angry about it.

They would rather be hurt at the loss of a friend and angry at you for trying to tarnish the name of their friend, than admit they had been so badly fooled.

Tell him about the Manti Teo story. Show him your evidence, or the lack of evidence. Do as much as you can, document your efforts to locate her. Show him the website of the NGO which doesn't list her anywhere. Give him the information, offer your support, and then back off.

It's entirely possible he thought something was off about the relationship but didn't want to admit it. But if he's not being pressured by you or anyone else, he might relax enough to consider what you said.

Backing him into a corner won't help, though, and might ruin your friendship.
posted by suelac at 9:28 AM on May 6, 2014

This is so scammy. My heart breaks for your friend, this is pretty classic. At the same time, you're not going to be able to convince him she never existed independently, and if you try, you'll lose your chance of doing it.

What you do is offer to help him. Tell him this is really an emotional time for him, and you want to be his support. Say, "I'll come over, let's call the NGO together and find out who her personal assistant was so we can talk to them." Then look up the direct number online for the NGO. (Look up the NGO on Guidestar first)

If it's a real NGO, then when he calls, he will get answers. Be there for him.
posted by corb at 9:29 AM on May 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

There is zero chance that this was a real person. You need to just sit him down and tell him this. He may not listen, but you have a duty as a friend to tell him your concerns (even if it means you temporarily lose his friendship).

-Anyone who wants to have an email address can have one in 2.2 seconds
-A real 20-something person has an email address
-A real med student has a university-provided email address
-A real head of an NGO has an organization-provided email address
-A real head of an NGO has a Linkedin or other public profile
-A real head of an NGO has a Facebook and Twitter account (PR=Donations=NGO can operate)
-Depending on the country, a real head of an NGO would be listed on public disclosure and/or tax filing documents
-A real avalanche victim would be in the newspaper
-Someone who runs an NGO and several successful businesses while going to med school all while still in their 20s would be in the newspaper as a prodigy
-Someone who runs an NGO and several successful businesses while going to med school all while still in their 20s would have a smartphone with skype/facetime capability

Tell him straight up that there is no way this girl existed.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:30 AM on May 6, 2014 [24 favorites]

This is a scam. Please tell your friend, and be there for the disbelief, and anger, and denial.

When you tell them, show them comparable stories that follow the same plot.

They could also be setting him up to be kidnapped and held for ransom.

It sounds like he doesn't have much of a support network, so you may consider hooking him up with a counselor to help absorb the blow.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:31 AM on May 6, 2014

The death of the "girlfriend" is a unique next-level twist I haven't heard of before

So, I was visiting home week before last, and I watched an episode of Dr. Phil (warning, autoplay) with my grandma.

This episode centered around a couple trying to adopt a baby from a woman who contacted them online saying she was pregnant. Talked to the woman's "friends" who all had to use her cell phone to text because they didn't have phones. Couple even flew to the woman's house to meet her and "felt the baby kicking."

Along the way, pregnant lady starts making the story more and more ridiculous. Unborn baby's dad is a rapist in jail and is suing for custody rights. Baby is actually two babies, and secret twin baby is going to have developmental disabilities. Pregnant lady has cancer now which means the babies will be autistic. Etc, etc, etc, just getting more and more ridiculous.

Anyway, where I'm going with this is that, well, obviously the babies didn't exist, the woman was lying and was never pregnant. She wasn't in it to scam anyone for money, she was just a severely damaged, lonely person who wanted attention. When the story got out of control and she realized she couldn't keep up the lie (unborn babies kind of have a timeline that they follow), she started throwing up roadblocks to scare the couple off so that they'd go away and never have to find out about the lie. Figuring, ok, now that it's two babies they'll go away. Ok, now that the babies are going to be sick, they'll go away. Ok, now that the dad is a scary rapist, they'll go away. And on and on.

Part of me thinks that this might not be a scam scam for the money scam (the NGO story is weird, but whatever), and maybe that your elderly mutual friend is just a sad, lonely, damaged person who wanted attention and now doesn't know how to stop. So she made the girlfriend die.

So I don't know, this is really tough. I don't envy your position here at all, but I'm glad that you're going to be there to try to show your friend that this is deeply fucked up and he needs to extricate himself from the situation as soon as possible.
posted by phunniemee at 9:32 AM on May 6, 2014 [12 favorites]

The death of the "girlfriend" is a play straight out of the catfishing of Manti Te'o.

Your friend's grief is real. His emotions are real. But the girl... she was never real.

The hardest thing for you is to remain empathetic of his grief while doing your very best to blow up the scam.

Sunlight is the best sanitizer. You have to confront the fraudster, and not in a subtle way.
posted by Kakkerlak at 9:34 AM on May 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

How about calling the NGO and saying something like "I am an acquaintance of [FakeGirl], who told me she was an employee of your company. I would like to send some memorial flowers to her family. Do you have information about how I could do that?" Presumably the receptionist will be very confused about who you're referring to, and then you'll have a solid piece of evidence for your friend. "I called her office and they have never heard of [FakeGirl]."

I mean, I think you have to tell him. I agree that he's very willfully in denial and may not believe you, but I think the more solid pieces of evidence you have the more likely he is to realize he's been scammed. The simplest solution would be that it's the "mutual friend" herself, for whatever reason (extremely lonely, mentally ill, etc.).
posted by MsMolly at 9:35 AM on May 6, 2014 [9 favorites]

We have looked up this organization – it makes no mention of her whatsoever.

Well, there you go. Contact the organization - don't tell them the backstory, just say you're trying to reach Scammy McScammerson at their organization and it's a little bit urgent. Ideally do this by email so you have a response to show your friend.

I really doubt this is a scam for money, the "inheritance" hook is just to keep him communicating.

I would be really matter of fact about this. "Hey, Friend, I am so sorry this is happening to you but you've been catfished and I know that makes it worse, not better. But I'm here for you."

Then you contact the acquaintance and tell her you're calling the police and the FBI so she needs to shut it down pronto. I mean, don't do that for real probably unless requests for money have actually occurred, but just put her on notice.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:37 AM on May 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

He needs mental health help ASAP. You should be concerned about suicidality. If there aren't therapists there, what about in the next big university? Or a hotline of some sort? Can he stay with one of you, or you stay with him for a few days?
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:38 AM on May 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

As a side thought, it might be good to get this updated via the mods, as soon as new information emerges. This is potentially a very helpful thread both regarding the workings of the scam itself, and regarding how the victims might react when subjected to this kind of information.
posted by Namlit at 10:00 AM on May 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

- They met through a mutual acquaintance that our friend has met only once, a few years ago. Acquaintance is an elderly woman. A was in her twenties. A claimed to have no email address, skype id or facebook. She used the acquaintance’s accounts to email/skype him.

- All roads lead to the mutual acquaintance. Her accounts. She owns the NGO. She is the same nationality as the fictitious A but knows our country well. She lives in the city he is considering moving to. Her facebook shows she organised an event exactly like one A supposedly hosted at the same time, a few months ago. We don’t know if it is her phone number but we hope to get a chance to look it up soon.

He's been in a relationship with an elderly woman for nine months, who was likely lonely, and created the fictitious self so she could get some attention.

Poor guy.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 10:08 AM on May 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

"A real avalanche victim would be in the newspaper"

Not necessarily by name. I just checked and there was an avalanche in the Alps in Italy on May 1st. One man died and was mentioned by name. There was another on May 4th. Two men died. One was French, the other Italian. No names given.

I also disagree with this: "A real head of an NGO has a Linkedin or other public profile" and
"A real head of an NGO has a Facebook and Twitter account (PR=Donations=NGO can operate)"
Those things are not true for every NGO. US standards are not world wide standards.

Regardless, A was not a real person.
posted by travelwithcats at 10:18 AM on May 6, 2014

This is kind of an odd idea, but maybe you could contact a private investigator, explain the information you do have and they can quote you on how much it'd cost to prove this person does not exist.

I can't believe it would be very difficult, and they'd arrange it in a coherent paper trail for you.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:00 AM on May 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh man, this is so sad to hear. I've seen it happen in two separate online communities.

There's loads of great advice here, particularly from phunniemee and Lyn Never. My advice is along those lines.

The first thing that came to my mind was emailing the organization to try to get in touch with "A" and then, when the response comes back that there is no "A" affiliated with the organization, talk to your friend and explain the sad truth that "A" wasn't affiliated with them.

In the meantime, definitely insist that, before he do anything drastic like moving, he get to see any legal papers involving him. That'll be a good way to get him to start thinking clearly about things, I think, since it would only make sense that such a thing involve contracts/papers/etc. This will possibly stall him in the process long enough for you to get a response from the organization and will hopefully plant a seed of doubt in his mind, which you can then work with when you get the response from the organization.

A really sad case, but it happens more often than one would think.

Also possibly useful: Wikipedia's page on Münchausen by Internet.
posted by juliebug at 11:40 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your most important point is this one:

He has been talking about how he has nothing to live for now, and how he will spend the rest of his life trying to make her proud. What is it going to do to him if this turns out to have been a fake relationship all along?

Proving to him that "A" was fake is secondary to dealing with how he will handle this. You say there is little support for him in your small town. This is probably a great reason why he was targeted. Your first call, before giving him "proof", needs to be putting up a support system for him. Family? Churches? An organized group of friends? Could a sibling or parent stay with him for a few days? Can you wrangle friends into having a visiting schedule?

He can, and will get over this. It won't be easy. He might be embarrassed. You can at least keep him from being bankrupted or worse. You can be a better judge of what kind of proof he will need. A tineye image search would be an easy first step. Calling the NGO and asking for "A" would be another easy step.

Plant the seed with him. "A" didn't work there. This isn't a picture of "A" it's someone else. That will lead to "A" wasn't a real person and Acquaintance was lying to you.
posted by fontophilic at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, this is sad and fucked up. I think you should tell him, but I'd advocate a different approach than many of those above --- this seems to me like you might need to lead the horse to water, here. That is, I thinkif you go straight in with "FYI your girlfriend never existed" his instinct will be to defend her, deny your claims, and push you away. You want to stay on his good side on this so you can support him. I think planting the seeds of doubt and letting him figure things out for himself would be better. Maybe something like asking about the funeral arrangements or memorial service --- ask what the plans are, if he's been able to meet her family. Normal questions that you would normally ask if the girlfriend had been real --- the key is to make him spit out the web of bullshit he's being fed, and then you can pick at it, gently. Oh, they're not having a service? That's strange, why? But don't her friends and colleagues want to do something? Maybe you could help --- have you talked to anyone at her work about this? When he says whatever ridiculous thing they're telling him, just be concerned and confused, not confrontational. Ideally, you want him to come to the realisation that this situation is all kinds of fishy by himself. I think you'll get that result if he's trying to assuage your fears and slowly realizes he can't because nothing he's saying makes sense.
posted by Diablevert at 11:57 AM on May 6, 2014 [9 favorites]

I think it sounds like perhaps the elderly woman was the one having this long distance romance with him, under false pretenses of being young and beautiful. It's totally screwed up but also kind of sad in a way. I suspect he knows the truth, deep down, and doesn't want to acknowledge it. The "death by avalanche" is a way of ending the charade (sick and twisted though it is).

I wouldn't pick at him, I'd just refuse to indulge it and kind of ignore it and let this weird episode blow over and fade away. I'd plant the seed for him to have this discussion, "Jim, don't you think it's all a little weird? Don't you think that maybe [mutual acquaintance] might have been the one you've been talking to this whole time?]." And then drop the whole thing, and don't indulge too much lingering into this.

Maybe throw out one statement about "Jim, under no circumstances should you give these people your bank account info for the "inheritance." They can cut you a check, or wire it to a new account that has no money in it so you're not at risk." Even if he argues with you in the moment, he'll remember the advice if they do ask for his account info.
posted by amaire at 12:05 PM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Because "there is talk of an inheritance", I feel that it is especially important for you and your friend to understand the timing that is involved in international wire transfers and such. The timing can be such that it will take weeks for a bank to reverse a fraudulent credit, making this hypothetical scenario a possibility (as in, a lot of people have actually been scammed this way):

1. Your friend is told that he will receive a large amount of money, let's say $20k.

2. He checks his bank account and voila, he actually has the $20k!

3. He is now told that he needs to send $5k somewhere (say, a legal fee for whatever).

4. He is not stupid, so he calls his bank to make sure the $20k he has already received is truly his. The bank rep confirms that the money is his and that the stop-payment (or whatever) window is 5 days so for sure nothing bad can possibly happen if he wires the money next Monday.

5. He waits until Tuesday, just to be absolutely sure, and then wires out the $5k.

6. Two weeks later, $20k is debited from his account because the originating non-US bank discovered fraud and it's taken 3 weeks for the process to work its way through the resolution system.

7. Your friend tries to get back his $5k only to discover that international transfers are anonymous and non-reversible and his bank will not take responsibility for what he was told on the phone.
posted by rada at 12:55 PM on May 6, 2014 [25 favorites]

I'd consider involving the police: "I'm concerned that my friend is be the victim of an ongoing wire transfer fraud by a fictional internet girlfriend.", lay it out in front of them and have the police explain to him that she never existed. You'd probably want someone a bit experienced with social media/financial stuff rather than a random beat cop whose people skills are exercised a bit differently.

It will be harder for your friend to maintain their denial if it's coming from a cop.

I'd alert their bank manager as well.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:22 PM on May 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

From the OP:
Things are steadily getting weirder. Some answers to questions first though. First of all, we are not in the US or any other Western country. Our friend is staying with us already. Law enforcement is unlikely to be of any use. Mental health resources are very limited. We have suggested counseling and he is considering it (he has had bad experiences with counseling in the past).
There are no laws here to our knowledge that cover this sort of scam. There is no mention of any accident like the one A died in, and the place where it supposedly happened has not been open to the public for a month. Tineye image searches are done. They yielded nothing. Ditto for Google. The NGO appears to be a family show – acquaintance and her husband run it. Contacting it means contacting the acquaintance.

As to an update, the charade is ongoing! A’s family has been in constant contact with him by text. All the time, all day. They are using the same phone number A used while claiming to be on yet another continent. When he offered to fly out and meet them they said no, her uncle is having surgery because he had a heart attack when he heard. He has been explicitly asked to stay away.
About money – he has sourced some items for one of A’s businesses before and she sent him money for them. We assume therefore that they have his bank information.

Today he reached out to the acquaintance but her husband answered the phone, and was very short with him and said she was unavailable. Acquaintance has unfriended him on facebook. Acquaintance’s family member has replied to his email asking for help with more rudeness (no details on this so unclear whether he was unaware of the scam or totally aware and just being an asshole). A’s family texted him after he was rebuffed by the NGO and told him to back off. He has been told not to use photos of A or her godchildren on any public website.

Our friend is very closed up, very private, and we aren’t sure he is being entirely honest with us. He told us today that he has had no contact with the acquaintance, but one of us spotted her name flashing on his phone with a message saying goodnight. We are all very clear that it is way too soon to break the news to him – we do not yet have a plan in place and we really don’t know that we have the capacity to deal with the fallout. Also, he is in WAY deep. He won’t believe us right now, he’ll just shut us out.

This just gets more insane as each day goes by. What is this person doing and what is their endgame? We’re lost.

Thanks everyone for your input. Please keep it coming.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:02 AM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm thinking the scenario might go like this:
  • Acquaintance really does run an NGO.
  • Acquaintance's husband really does work at the NGO.
  • Acquaintance for whatever reasons, decides to invent the fake persona named A. She uses photos of someone she knows (like a relative or friend's daughter).
  • Acquaintance and Husband (and possibly the whole family) aren't strangers to scams, but Husband doesn't know about the fake romance.
  • Friend gets close to wanting to travel and visit, so Acquaintance pulls the plug and invents the avalanche.
  • Acquaintance wants to keep in contact with him, maybe he was a good source for some scheme that the NGO/husband are pulling so she invents this will/inheritance story to keep contact on going.
  • Friend responds by wanting to travel even more! This is not going to Acquaintance's plans. She invents the uncle's heart attack.
  • Husband finds out. Husband makes Acquaintance unfriend Friend on Facebook. Husband just wants to cut all of his wife's contact with Friend.
  • Since Husband, and probably the whole NGO is dirty, husband will want to avoid any kind of scrutiny or attention.
So, if what I'm hypothesizing holds water you'll never get a clear confession or denial from Husband or Acquaintance. Exposing one scam will shine light into the rest of their secrets.

Since your real goal is to help your friend, not to expose the fraudsters I think your response needs to be supporting him, helping him talk through his thoughts and feelings. He'll reach an even keel at some point after the shock of grief has passed. At that point you can start leading him with some questions. Again, just plant a seed and let him work through it. Maybe "why are there no obituaries of A?" "Why are there no reports of an avalanche in X?"
posted by fontophilic at 10:44 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

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