How do scams run on the Internet

How a woman from Bremen fights love fraudsters on the Internet

Four women are sitting in a hotel lobby, three of them are veiled, wearing sunglasses and a mask. In front of them lies the printed plan of a station forecourt. Your mission: to convict a criminal. What sounds like an American crime series is reality in the ZDF report "Internet love trap - the meshes of online fraudsters". For their film, Jochen Schulze and Oliver Koytek accompanied the "Romance Scambaiters" (for example: love fraud bait), a group of women who have set themselves the goal of confronting so-called love fraudsters.

Helga Grotheer, the only one who appears in front of the camera without a mask and under a real name, is the head of the action. Twelve years ago, the now 59-year-old business woman from Bremen founded an online forum in which victims of "romance scammers" can exchange ideas. Grotheer calls the scam in which men write to single women on the Internet with stolen photos and fake profiles in order to steal money through feigned affection. The financial damage to the victims is often great, and the emotional damage is usually even greater. "I didn't pay any money, but my soul has already gotten a crack," reports Helga Grotheer, who herself fell for such a fraud many years ago.

The perpetrators speak of "customers"

The women concerned are architects, managers, controllers. Most of them feel lonely, have been through divorce, separation or the death of their partner. Internet fraudsters take advantage of their victims' longing for love and affection, explains the psychologist Stephania Lanzillotta-Reichstein in the film.

This becomes clear in a conversation with two young men in Ghana. They earn their money by fooling women in Germany into having great love. To do this, they steal identities, often posing as soldiers. They speak of "customers", they reject the word "victims": "That doesn't sound good." They do not see the scam as a crime; their online acquaintances are "business partners" for them. When one of the two is called by a woman via video chat, he covers the camera. He explains to her that the device is broken. Before hanging up, he says, "I love you."

"All women should fight together against such people"

Such declarations of love are usually followed by requests for financial support within a very short time. Many women pay - and only recognize the scam when it is long too late. The police often cannot help: most of the perpetrators are in West Africa, investigations there usually come to nothing.

For this reason, Helga Grotheer made it her life's mission to "help the police". With success! She and her colleagues have already made around 50 arrests. About as many women are active in the "Romance Scambaiters", each of them writes on average with two to three cheaters at the same time. In most cases, only the middlemen who arrange to meet the alleged victims to collect large amounts of cash for lovers abroad who are allegedly in an emergency are actually caught.

Grotheer organizes and coordinates such meetings all over Germany in order to let the perpetrators fall into the trap. Your work will only be done when the number of fraudsters declines again. She thinks: "All women should fight against such people together."

"Internet love trap - the meshes of online fraudsters" will be available from Saturday, May 15, in the ZDF media library. The film can be seen on ZDFinfo on Friday, May 21, 8:15 p.m.