In July, we received a call from Ruby, a middle-aged professional in Singapore who’d been in an online relationship with an American man for several months. As their relationship grew, so did her suspicions. Over the next 20 minutes, she told me a dizzying story about Rick Charles Moore, an American oil executive who had been detained in Norway for reasons unclear and needed financial support.
I know, this sounds like a typical romance scam, right?
But there were some interesting twists.
Someone on LinkedIn Viewed Your Profile
In December 2019, Rick Charles Moore invited Ruby to connect on LinkedIn. It was one of those innocuous requests that you get all the time if you’re a LinkedIn member. Although Ruby didn’t share any connections with Rick, his profile seemed legitimate enough. He was based in Kansas, had a degree from the University of Oklahoma, and worked as a project manager at BP. Rick had spent his career in the oil industry, working on oil rigs in the American Midwest before venturing abroad. He had several hundred connections, was active on LinkedIn, sharing photos and quotes, and had several endorsements from fellow LinkedIn members for his engineering and project management skills. Rick’s photo was of a middle-aged man — not too handsome and not too perfect. Just the kind of picture that nobody would think twice about.
The chatter started normally enough — friendly, but professional. After a few weeks, it got more interesting. Soon, Ruby and Rick began chatting on WhatsApp for several hours a day.
And then Rick’s problems began to unfurl.
When Rick and Ruby started messaging, he’d been based on an oil rig off the coast of Norway for a one-year project that paid him more than $240,000 — money he just couldn’t pass up. Also, Rick explained, he needed an extreme change of scenery. His wife had died in a car accident a few years before, and he wanted to explore the world and distract himself from his grief.
By mid-February, Rick was stuck on the rig. Incoming messages described an escalating crisis: After a serious battering by a winter storm, the damaged rig had started disgorging oil into the North Sea and was in “non-compliance.” Rick thought an evacuation was unneccessary, but the company did not concur. The crew was airlifted to shore by helicopter while an emergency team repaired the rig.
After a few weeks on dry land, Rick went back to the rig and spent the last weeks of his contract tying up loose ends and packing his things. His commitment was up in early March, after which he was headed back to the U.S.
In late February, Rick asked Ruby to access his bank account. He was unable to get online access from the rig, he explained.
This made no sense to Ruby, and little sense to me when she was telling the story. Why couldn’t he access the account himself? He was messaging her via the internet, wasn’t he? And who asks someone he’s never laid eyes on to access his banking information?
Rick’s request made Ruby uneasy, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on why. At this point, he hadn’t asked her for anything. All he wanted was for Ruby to access his bank account. That seemed harmless enough. Still, she demurred, and he didn’t mention it again.
An Invitation Is Waiting for Your Response
In early March, Rick was transferred to Edinburgh, Scotland. He told Ruby by phone that he was heading home via London, but before he could leave the country, he had to go to the Environment Agency of UK for some type of clearance.
Which is when things got interesting.
Rick told Ruby that his bank accounts had been “suspended” for some unknown reason, and he needed to come up with the “clearance” fine of £4,500. He only had £1,000 on him and asked Ruby to send the money to the Environment Agency in London. All of this seemed quite suspicious to her, save for the fact that Rick told her to send the money directly to the Environment Agency in London.
Ruby never said outright that she was suspicious. But she also didn’t wire the money. Instead, she hopped a plane to London, arriving on the morning of March 10th, and immediately called Rick, who was supposed to pick her up at Heathrow. The phone rang and rang. Ruby headed to the hotel and waited. She heard not a word from Rick for the next 28 hours.
Finally, a WhatsApp message appeared from Rick. He had been detained after reporting to the Environment Agency and was now being transported to Bergen, on the west coast of Norway. The reasons for his detention and removal to Norway were not totally clear.
The story was getting ever more convoluted and less believable. But for an instant, Ruby entertained an impulse to board a train for the 13-hour ride to Bergen.
And then she came to her senses, booked the next flight to Singapore, and went home.
That’s where the story should have ended.
But it didn’t.
Congratulate Rick for Starting a New Position
A week after Ruby flew home, an email from Rick’s attorney landed in her inbox. To be honest, this is the part of the story where I got a little bit lost. At this point, I was so certain that Rick was a complete fraud, which may have caused my mind to wander. But in short, the attorney told her that Rick was stuck in Norway because he couldn’t pay his fine. His bank account was still suspended, and the law firm needed Ruby’s help to transfer money between Rick’s accounts so that Rick could pay the fine from his own account.
Ruby obliged, transferring sums of $30,000 per day in various transactions, none of which came out of her own account.
I still can’t really figure out the end game here. Money laundering? Was this a trust building exercise? Or was Ruby involved in something much deeper that she didn’t want to admit to?
Nevertheless, by the beginning of July, Ruby was getting fed up. Rick was still being detained in Norway, for reasons that remained murky. She hadn’t been in direct touch with him for weeks. And the Pennsylvania attorney had chastised her by email, claiming that something she did had forced the bank to close Rick’s account. Ruby was frustrated and confused; all she’d done was follow the lawyer’s instructions.
And then Rick’s attorney asked Ruby to send the money in Bitcoin.
That’s when she contacted us.
Start a Conversation with Your New Connection
Despite the strange twists of Rick’s story and the attorney’s fishy request to send money in Bitcoin, Ruby sounded hopeful on the phone with me; some part of her still wanted to believe. She told me she’d hoped to go to Norway in person instead of sending the Bitcoin. To her mind, she had been cautious, and had done a lot of things right. She asked tons of questions. She kept documents, official-looking ones. She asked for intimate details and made careful notes.
Ruby struck me as a sensible, educated person with a good nose for the not-quite-right. If someone like her could get scammed, I figured, almost anyone could. She had logged months of mundane, hours-long chatter. She found Rick’s backstory and “perfect” American accent to be imminently believable. And in all, she was out a few thousand dollars in miscellaneous transfer fees. Rick never really got much from her.
Seemed like a lot of work for very little payoff.
The sheer volume of information that Ruby had collected about Rick made her think that he was legitimate. She had Rick’s birthdate, home address in the United States, Social Security number, U.S. phone numbers, and photos. She knew his grandmother’s name, the nursing home where Rick’s mother lived, his height and blood type. She even knew about his wife Karen’s fatal car accident on the first Friday of February, 2016. To her, all these details came together to create a robust fact infrastructure that looked like a real person’s life. And even the red flags didn’t point in any specific direction: Where was the big ask? Why hadn’t he disappeared when she refused to wire funds?
At this point, Ruby suspected that she was being scammed, but she wanted to know a few things: Was Rick a real person? Did this law firm exist?
I get calls like this all the time. Usually, they tell a story similar to Ruby’s — and then comes a request like, “All I need to know is if Rick’s blood type is really O+” or “If you can determine that Rick’s mother is really not in that nursing home, I will walk away.” As if the blood type or nursing home lie were some final wound that would sever the fraying thread of trust for good and offer a clean break. It’s usually some ridiculous, arbitrary, and nearly impossible detail they want me to verify or disprove.
But Ruby was reasonable. She had tons of information and needed a simple answer: Was her relationship with Rick real or a sham? Had her confidence been betrayed?
Given the sheer amount of information Ruby had on Rick, I thought this would be pretty easy — which scared the hell out of me. Because I’ve seen this film enough to know that the easier the job seems at the outset, the more difficult it usually is.
I told Ruby that I would do a bit of digging on my end and get back to her with some recommendations.
I hung up the phone and couldn’t wait to dig in.
A Message About Your New Connection
Within 30 minutes, I’d done some preliminary research and set up a time to talk with Ruby again.
We spoke the next day.
Rick wasn’t real, I told her. Turns out that Rick’s web of lies wasn’t so easy to untangle.
There was no Rick Thomas Moore living at the address she had given me. It was a real house, but nobody by that name or surname ever lived at the address.
There was nobody by the name Rick Thomas Moore with the date of birth she gave me in the entire United States. And the Social Security number wasn’t real either.
The law firm was fake too. The domain name that the attorneys were using? It was set up the day before they emailed Ruby. And the attorney name she had didn’t exist either.
The final nail in the coffin were the photos of Rick. I put the photos she sent through some facial recognition tools, and what do you know? Rick was actually a Russian activist who had fled the country and was living in Spain. Every single one of the photos she sent me were on his Facebook profile.
Ruby took the news with equanimity. Her voice betrayed a mix of relief and disquiet: How could someone do this? And why? “There are many wicked people out there hurting others emotionally and financially,” she later wrote to me.
Ruby insisted on paying me, but I told her no. The only thing I wanted was for her to stop communicating with “Rick” and anyone affiliated with him.
She agreed to my terms.
Ruby also agreed to let me share her story, to help others who are navigating online relationships and wondering how much to trust, and how much to verify.
So here are some of my tips to protect yourself from master deceivers — or, at least, to mitigate the damage if you get caught up in a scam.
- Scammers like to shower you with details that are tough to verify, like the fact that they ran a 4:10 mile in high school, or that they were the first person to ever eat a bowl of cereal in under 10 seconds. Random details like these “feel” true but prove nothing. Try getting data you can check out, like birthdates, copies of official documents, family names, etc.
- Not only should you try to casually squeeze verifiable details out of the person, but you should write these details down — they have a funny way of changing over time. So things like: ✓ Date of birth. ✓ Social Security number. ✓ Addresses. ✓ Parents’ names. ✓ Siblings’ names. ✓Co-workers’ names.
- Ruby was confident that Rick was an American because of his accent. But asking for a video call might have changed everything. Would the person on video have matched the photos he sent and the accent she knew from the phone calls? I seriously doubt it.
- Don’t take photos someone sends you at face value. Typically, scammers keep a treasure trove of images they found online — it’s relatively easy to skim dozens or even hundreds of snapshots of someone from social media feeds or blogs. So first, I would suggest using one of the many tools to do reverse image searches, like Google Images, Bing Images or Yandex. Then, how about asking for a photo of your new friend at the location they claim to be messaging you from right now? Does the picture resemble your person? Does the background look like the west coast of Norway in February?
- Talk to an independent third party and get their honest take. As Ruby told the story to me, she said out loud on a few occasions, “This sounds ridiculous.” Within a few minutes of talking to her, I was sure this was a scam, and I think talking to me helped her see that, too. I don’t think she’d ever told her story to anyone — in part, out of embarrassment. But when you hear yourself explain the whole story, it may sound crazy enough that it will help you change your mindset and admit the truth to yourself.
- An argument I’ve heard again and again is: “But they never really asked for anything!” I’ve worked on dozens of these cases over the years. Sometimes the fraudster doesn’t want anything. Sometimes they are playing the long con, building it up for the big ask later on. Sometimes, it’s just about having some companionship, or the thrill of getting away with something. You really can’t imagine what motivates some people. All you can do is learn to protect yourself from getting hurt.
- Remember that no one is immune, no matter their intelligence, education, or street-savvy. Anybody can get scammed, including billionaire investors, Nobel laureates, Harvard Law professors, and former U.S. Secretaries of State. Just knowing this can help inoculate you, to a degree, against the shame and denial that too often prevent people from taking timely action to defend themselves.
- Self-awareness helps. What are your vulnerabilities, insecurities, or pressure points? Be brutally honest with yourself. Romance scammers are brilliant at exploiting desire: People want to feel lovable, attractive, generous, open-minded, compassionate, powerful, selfless or smart, so the scammer finds ways to fill that craving. But they can only fool you if you first lie to yourself.