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Tougher action needed in the fight against scientific fraud

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What is there to stop someone publishing scientific research that is based on no actual research or uses fake evidence to support their claims?

If the risk to reputation and all that follows isn’t enough to deter someone from such scientific fraud, then what other steps can science take to maintain the integrity of any published research?

The criminal prosecution of Dr Caroline Barwood should serve as a warning to researchers who might be tempted to engage in such actions. She was convicted last month of fraudulently applying for research grants.

The criminal charges for fraud and attempted fraud that were brought against Barwood were based mainly on her attempts to obtain funding for research investigating a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

The research was allegedly conducted with Professor Bruce Murdoch through the Centre for Neurogenic Communication Disorders Research at the University of Queensland.

Whistleblower prompts investigation

In 2012, an unidentified whistleblower contacted the University of Queensland about Murdoch and Barwood’s Parkinson’s study. After an internal investigation the university discovered multiple irregularities, no primary data from the research and no evidence that the research had actually been conducted.

Publications based on the research had appeared in several prominent journals. The university informed the journals and four papers have now been retracted.

Both Barwood and Murdoch resigned from the university. But the university referred the matter to Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission. After a lengthy investigation, the Commission recommended that criminal charges be laid against both researchers.

In March 2016 Murdoch pleaded guilty to 17 fraud-related charges. He was given a two year suspended sentence. The sentencing magistrate found that there was no evidence Murdoch had conducted the clinical trials on which his findings, and some of his publications, were allegedly based.

A critical feature of the prosecution was that both public and private research money had funded the research.

Barwood’s conviction followed later in 2016. She was convicted of five charges and sentenced to two years imprisonment, also suspended. She may face a further trial because the jury couldn’t reach agreement on another two charges.

These cases may be rare but mark a willingness to use criminal prosecutions to deal with researchers who engage in fraud.

Scientific fraud! Call the police

But is hitting researchers for fraud over their applications for funds enough to deter the scientific fraud itself?

In a hard-hitting editorial in 2013, the journal Nature said:

Science likes to shelter its crooks with euphemisms. The prefix ‘research’ softens fraud, and to deliberately obtain public money through deception gets labelled misconduct, among other things. This reflects the fact that the crime is viewed as being against professional standards rather than against the laws of wider society.

Several prominent commentators, including a former editor of the British Medical Journal have joined the call for scientific fraud to be recognised as a criminal offence.

The re-framing of some forms of scientific misconduct as criminal fraud recognises that scientific fraud involving the fabrication of research and/or results in circumstances where private or public funding has been sought or obtained is similar to other forms of fraud.

It involves dishonesty and deception for the purpose of obtaining money or other financial advantage. It is immaterial that the benefit may not have been for the direct, personal benefit of the researcher.

It also recognises that like other forms of fraud, scientific fraud requires careful, detailed investigation and the obtaining of evidence. Police and other prosecuting authorities (such as the Crime and Corruption Commission) are best able to conduct this sort of investigation and gather this information.

Overseas examples

The first prosecution for scientific fraud appears to have been in the United States in 2006. Eric Poehlman was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to prison for a year and a day after he falsified results from his obesity research. Poehlman had received significant amounts of research funding.

Perhaps the most famous case in recent years involved Dong-Pyou Han, a biomedical scientist at Iowa State University. Han falsified the results of several experiments involving the development of a vaccine for HIV.

He eventually pleaded guilty to making false statements to obtain research grants. He was sentenced to 57 months in prison and ordered to pay back US$7.2 million in grant funds that he had fraudulently obtained.

All these cases involved intentional deception. They were not simply lapses in scientific standards or based on disputes about appropriate methodology or analysis.

A further troubling feature is that many cases involved eminent or promising researchers from leading institutions and universities, including now the University of Queensland.

Run them out of town

Criminal prosecutions for academic fraud are rare. A researcher who is found to have engaged in fraud will more likely lose their job, suffer reputational damage, be de-registered (if they are a registered health care professional), have publications retracted and find it difficult to obtain further research funding.

But these traditional strategies for dealing with scientific fraud have significant limitations.

The potential lack of institutional integrity is foremost. Universities and other institutions are sometimes more concerned with protecting their own reputations rather than properly investigating potential fraud.

That said, the decisive action taken by the University of Queensland demonstrates a commitment to high research standards.

The retraction of published papers based on fraudulent research is fraught with problems. In an editorial published in 2013 the journal Nature Medicine noted a lack of co-operation by the researcher’s institution in investigating cases of alleged fraud and threats of legal action by the suspect researcher made retractions difficult. It said:

[…] our experience on this front has been largely disappointing.

There are now promising alternatives to criminal prosecution and traditional sanctions. They have potentially broader impact because they are not restricted to research which has been funded and they come from within the scientific community itself.

These initiatives include some journals now requiring authors to submit their raw data before publication is considered, and the website Retraction Watch which monitors fraud by identifying scientific articles that have been retracted.

Also, a reproducibility initiative by Science Exchange encourages researchers to submit their experiments and results and have them replicated by independent researchers. This provides another means for ensuring research integrity.

Do criminal prosecutions work?

Criminal prosecutions are certainly an appropriate strategy for dealing with some forms of scientific fraud. But they are not a panacea.

At best, they function as an additional mechanism for pursuing egregious cases where researchers have obtained, or tried to obtain, research funding based on non-existent studies or results that has been altered.

In these cases the scientific fraud clearly constitutes criminal conduct and should be prosecuted as such.

But in many instances the traditional regulatory mechanisms and sanctions, in conjunction with newer initiatives to more closely monitor research, will still be the primary mechanisms for ensuring the integrity of scientific research.


This article was edited at the request of the author to correct the institution of Dong-Pyou Han to Iowa State University, and not the University of Iowa as previously stated.

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Henry Sapiecha

www.crimefiles.net

www.intelagencies.com

www.sciencearticlesonline.com

How to tackle cyber crime before people even know they’re a victim

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What if the police told you that you were being scammed – would you continue to send money?

An estimated A$75,000 is lost by Australians everyday to online fraud, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Given that this is based on reported crime, the real figure is likely to be much higher. It is well known that fraud, particularly online fraud, has a very low reporting rate. This also doesn’t even begin to encompass non-financial costs to victims. The real cost is likely to be much, much higher.

There are many challenges to policing this type of crime, and victims who send money to overseas jurisdictions make it even harder, as does the likelihood of offenders creating false identities or simply stealing legitimate ones.

But despite these challenges police have started to do something to prevent the impact and losses of online fraud.

By accessing financial intelligence, police are able to identify individuals who are sending money to known high-risk countries for fraud. They then notify these people with their suspicions that they may be involved in fraud. In many cases the people don’t even know they may be victims or involved in online fraud.

Project Sunbird

This proactive approach was originally pioneered by Queensland Police Service. Another example is Project Sunbird, a collaborative project between the West Australian Police (WAPOL) and the West Australian Department of Commerce (Commerce) which first started in 2012.

Project Sunbird focuses on people who are sending money to five known high-risk countries in West Africa: Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Togo and Sierra Leonne. This is not to say that these are the only countries involved in fraud, rather it recognises that a large amount of money is transferred to these “hot spot” countries.

There are five stages to Project Sunbird: identification; intervention;‘ interruption; intelligence; and investigation.

Identifying potential victims is conducted by WAPOL, who access financial intelligence of individuals who are sending money to these five specific countries. They screen this list to formulate a list of individuals they suspect are fraud victims.

This list is passed to Commerce, who send a letter to each person, notifying them that they may be victims of fraud. The letter encourages the individuals to stop sending money and invites them to contact Project Sunbird staff to discuss.

If they continue to send money, they will receive a second more targeted letter, which outlines further details of their likely involvement in fraud and provides a fact sheet for fraud victims.

The third stage is focused on the interruption of payments and funds transferred to West Africa and is primarily undertaken by Commerce.

The fourth stage is the gathering of intelligence from letter recipients from both agencies which feeds into the fifth stage, being the investigation, which is led by WAPOL and can focus on local offenders if relevant, or make the appropriate referrals to an overseas law enforcement agency.

Sunbird shows promising results

Initial results from Project Sunbird have been very positive. Between March 2013 and July 2014, 1,969 first letters were sent to individuals.

Financial intelligence indicates that approximately two thirds (66%) stopped sending money, with a further 14% reducing the amount of money transferred (transactions are examined three months prior and three months subsequent to the month the letter is received). Of those who continue to send money and receive a second letter, 44% stopped sending money and a further 33% reduced the amount being sent.

While these early results indicate the success of Project Sunbird, the displacement effect of this approach is unknown. Analyses are currently unable to determine if victims stop sending money altogether, or if they simply stop sending money to the five countries currently targeted, and continue to send money to other countries.

The types of fraud uncovered by Project Sunbird are many and varied. These include romance, investment, lottery and inheritance fraud to name a few. The reach of offenders and their ability to manipulate and exploit victims is endless.

Individual reactions to receiving this letter are generally positive. For some, it was literally a lifesaving letter, with two individuals contacting WAPOL to advise that they were on the verge of suicide prior to receiving the letter.

While many are unaware that they are being defrauded, others have suspicions and the letter may be an important step in helping them to recognise and confirm their fraud involvement. It also provides a non-threatening means of discussing this with police, which is vital given the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with this type of victimisation.

The intelligence advantage

The use of financial intelligence provides an important shift in the way police deal with online fraud, to a proactive, victim oriented approach, compared to the more traditional reactive, offender based methods.

Australia is fortunate to have infrastructure in place whereby the financial intelligence needed by police to identify potential fraud victims is available to them. Not all countries have this information available to them, which limits their ability to implement a similar approach.

This approach also recognises online fraud as a legitimate crime type, which can have devastating consequences for its victims. By intervening in such a proactive manner, it is attempting to reduce and limit the losses incurred by unsuspecting victims. It is much easier for police to interact with a victim early on who has only lost a small amount of money, compared to picking up the pieces further down the track when the victim may have lost everything.

The South Australian Police have now launched a similar project based on the Sunbird model. In addition, the ACCC launched the National Scam Disruption project in August 2014, taken from the Sunbird approach which targets potential victims in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

In December 2014, the ACCC reported that it had contacted 1,500 potential victims, of which 60% had stopped sending money (similar results to Project Sunbird).

At this stage however, no other jurisdiction in Australia or overseas has implemented the collaborative approach used in Project Sunbird, with either police or a consumer protection agency taking sole ownership in their jurisdiction. There is currently no national, coordinated approach in Australia.

Some still send money

Despite its initial success, this approach is not foolproof and there are individuals who continue to send money overseas despite police intervention.

For these people, their journey to the realisation of their true circumstances will take a little bit longer (if at all). There is also the possibility that some will continue to send money to countries outside the five currently targeted.

There is still much work to be done, including the obvious potential to expand this approach to all Australian jurisdictions and encompass a wider number of countries.

But Project Sunbird represents a small light in what can seem like a never ending tunnel on tackling cyber crime.

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Henry Sapiecha

www.intelagencies.com

www.crimefiles.net

Boiler room scams destroy lives yet police blame victims

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Queensland’s Gold Coast Australia has the dubious reputation of being the nation’s investment fraud capital, particularly for boiler room scams, a fact supported by the Queensland Organised Crime Commission of Inquiry.

The Inquiry estimated that Australians lose tens (possibly even hundreds) of millions of dollars each year to boiler room scams. While prosecutions have been successful, fraudulent companies are able to disappear and reappear under a different name overnight, presenting challenges for all law enforcement bodies. It also is difficult for potential victims to identify the fictitious nature of their potential investment.

Despite this, the commission has found there is a disturbingly strong victim blaming mentality expressed by police towards those who have fallen for, and lost money in such schemes.

Yet this depiction is problematic and largely inaccurate.

Blaming the victim

Boiler room scams are named after the high pressure sales techniques employed by offenders to coerce potential victims to invest in fraudulent companies. Victims can be approached through a telephone call or an email, and it could be specifically targeted to their circumstances.

Offenders present very slick and sophisticated sales pitches, and often have glossy brochures, websites, testimonials, and other supporting evidence to substantiate their offer. There are usually several people involved in the scheme, and they are all highly skilled at using social engineering and persuasion techniques to gain money from victims.

The commission’s report notes police were largely apathetic towards the likelihood of any investigation, blaming victims for not doing what was perceived to be “due diligence”. This highlights a negative stereotype of investment fraud victims as both greedy and naïve as well as not being investment savvy or financially literate. This depiction is simply not true.

Over the past few years, I have interviewed a number of individuals who have lost money in boiler room and fake investment opportunities. They have described to me in detail the ways in which they were persuaded to invest. Most strikingly, many have detailed the steps they took to confirm the investment prior to transferring money. It demonstrates a high level of due diligence however their decision to invest rested on a number of inaccurate and flawed assumptions.

Myth 1: the internet is always true

Many victims did their own research to determine the authenticity of what they were being presented, which included looking up the website of the proposed company, and doing other associated searches. In many instances, victims failed to realise that the offenders had created everything as part of the scam. The evidence victims were using to reassure themselves was a ploy on the part of the offenders to gain their trust, and ultimately, their money.

Myth 2: just because there is nothing negative, it must be ok

In their searches, many victims were unable to find anything negative or suspicious about their potential investment. A large number of individuals contacted corporate regulators such as the Australian Investment and Securities Commission (ASIC) or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to enquire about the company involved.

In most cases, these authorities were unable to provide any assistance or information which caused them concern. Unfortunately, by the time these agencies issued public warnings on a particular company, it was too late. In these circumstances, not finding anything negative doesn’t mean it isn’t fraud.

Myth 3: if the investment return is not outrageous, it must be legitimate

Offenders are improving the sophistication of their operations on a daily basis. For many boiler room scams, the return on investment offered by the fraudulent deal is not always significantly higher than one would expect. In many cases the promised returns were similar or only slightly better than other legitimate investment opportunities. The promise of exorbitant returns is a warning sign for potential investors, so by reducing this, offenders increase the likelihood that someone will buy into the fraudulent deal offered.

Myth 4: if it operates as a legitimate company, it must be genuine

My research indicates that financial literacy does not protect from investment fraud – in fact, the opposite. This is emphasised in the experiences of victims. Many had previous investment experience and relied upon their knowledge to determine if what they were being told was legitimate or not.

Offenders have adopted many processes and characteristics of legitimate investment companies, therefore there are fewer red flags for potential victims. Many victims were given online trading accounts where they could log in and view their investment and any gains or losses. This mirrors the legitimate actions of other investment companies.

For instance, one defrauded investor told me how he was even able to physically withdraw his initial amount as well as a small amount he had made from his investment, without any problems. This then gave him confidence that it was a legitimate investment opportunity and he subsequently put in $200,000. A short while after, the accounts disappeared.

Tackling the victim blaming

There are many misconceptions surrounding boiler room scams and investment fraud victims including a victim blaming attitude, which puts guilt and responsibility on the part of the victim for their perceived lack of due diligence. This is largely inaccurate. Many victims undertake detailed searches and investigations, however they rely upon flawed assumptions in their research.

In addition, the level of sophistication of these schemes should not be underestimated. Offenders are running highly organised and professional operations, specifically targeting potential investors. It is difficult to develop effective prevention messages which capture the intricacies of these schemes in a simplistic manner.

However, as the recent report noted, it is not good enough for police to use the complexities and sophistication of these schemes as a reason to delay or avoid investigations or blame the victim.

Victims already feel ashamed and embarrassed about their actions and instead require support to move forward and rebuild their lives, from both a financial and non-financial perspective.

The Inquiry’s findings should prompt police and other agencies into taking the problem of boiler room scams and the impact on its victims more seriously. There is an obvious gap in understanding how boiler room scams operate, their level of sophistication and the high powered persuasion tactics used against victims. This needs urgent attention, so as not to re-traumatise victims through the criminal justice system.

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Henry Sapiecha

ASIC repeats warning to Australian borrowers about lending up front fees scams

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ASIC is warning Australians about scammers asking consumers to make upfront payments for loans that are never provided. This new warning comes on the back of an increased number of recent reports from victims who have lost thousands of dollars from these scams.

The scammers appear to be operating from overseas, and have impersonated genuine Australian companies and Australian Credit Licence holders.  After making a loan enquiry online, the victims generally receive a telephone call or email from the scammers advising them that they qualify for a loan, sometimes for a larger amount than they originally applied for.

Victims are provided with fake loan contracts that look like legitimate contracts, and are often misled by the use of an Australian credit licence number or Australian Company Number belonging to genuine businesses that have no connection to the scam. The scammers also use re-routed Australian phone numbers to create the impression that they are located in Australia.

The scammers then tell the victims that they must pay insurance or fees for the loan before the loan can be provided, usually to Australian bank accounts set up for the purpose of receiving these payments. The deposits requested are often in the thousands, and can be as high as $5400 per consumer. However, after victims make these payments, they never receive the loan.

Legitimate lenders who are authorised under the credit laws in Australia will generally not request that any fees be paid upfront as these establishment costs are usually included in the loan and repaid over time.

“If you are asked to contribute fees or insurance costs before you are advanced any money under the loan, you should treat the proposed transaction with a great deal of suspicion. This is a classic warning sign of a scam”, said ASIC Deputy Chairman Peter Kell.

“Consumers should always take steps to make sure they are dealing with a legitimate business by only dealing with those they can reach through publicly available contact details, rather than accepting unsolicited offers of credit from lenders.”

Consumers should also be aware that they put themselves at risk of potential identity theft by giving out personal information (like copies of identification documents) to parties they don’t know or can’t contact through publicly available contact details.

As the scammers are usually operating overseas, ASIC is generally unable to pursue this type of matter. If you are suffering financial hardship, consider contacting a financial counsellor for help with your debts.  They offer a free service, and can be contacted via 1800 007 007.

Practical online scam prevention tips

  • Only deal with reputable online institutions
  • Do your background checks, but be aware that scammers can pretend to be a licensed credit provider located in Australia.
  • Be very suspicious of any requests for upfront payment, even if making a deposit into an Australian bank account.

Always check that the business you are dealing with is readily listed in the public domain. If there is anything you are unsure about, call the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) on 1300 300 630.

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Henry Sapiecha

INVESTMENT SCAM SCHEMES TO WATCH OUT FOR

Investment schemes

Investment schemes involve getting you or your business to part with money on the promise of a questionable financial opportunity.

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Common types of investment scams

Investment cold calls

A scammer claiming to be a stock broker or portfolio manager calls you and offers financial or investments advice. They will claim what they are offering is low-risk and will provide you with quick and high returns, or encourage you to invest in overseas companies. The scammer’s offer will sound legitimate and they may have resources to back up their claims.  They will be persistent, and may keep calling you back.

The scammer may claim that they do not need an Australian Financial Services licence, or that that they are approved by a real government regulator or affiliated with a genuine company.

The investments offered in these type of cold calls are usually share, mortgage, or real estate high-return schemes, options trading or foreign currency trading. The scammer is operating from overseas, and will not have an Australian Financial Services licence.

Share promotions and hot tips

The scammer encourages you to buy shares in a company that they predict is about to increase in value. You may be contacted by email or the message will be posted in a forum. The message will seem like an inside tip and stress that you need to act quickly. The scammer is trying to boost the price of stock so they can sell shares they have already bought, and make a huge profit. The share value will then go down dramatically.

If you invest you will be left with large losses or shares that are virtually worthless.

Investment seminars

Investment seminars are promoted by promising motivational speakers, investment experts, or self-made millionaires who will give you expert advice on investing.  They are designed to convince you into following high risk investment strategies such as borrowing large sums of money to buy property, or investments that involve lending money on a no security basis or other risky terms.

Promoters make money by charging you an attendance fee, selling overpriced reports or books, and by selling investments and property without letting you get independent advice. The investments on offer are generally overvalued and you may end up having to pay fees and commissions that the promoters did not tell you about. High pressure sales tactics or false and misleading claims are often used to pressure you into investing, such as guaranteed rent or discounts for buying off the plan.

If you invest there is a high chance you will lose money.

Visit ASIC’s MoneySmart for more information about investment seminar scams (link is external).

Superannuation

Superannuation scams offer to give you early access to your super fund, often through a self-managed super fund or for a fee. The offer may come from a financial adviser, or a scammer posing as one.  The scammer may ask you to agree to a story to ensure the early release of your money and then, acting as your financial adviser, they will deceive your superannuation company into paying out your super benefits directly to them.  Once they have your money, the scammer may take large ‘fees’ out of the released fund or leave you with nothing at all.

You cannot legally access the preserved part of your super until you are between 55 and 60, depending what year you were born. There are certain exceptions such as severe financial hardship or compassionate grounds – but anyone who otherwise offers early access to your super is acting illegally.

Visit ASIC’s MoneySmart for more information about how super works (link is external).

Warning signs

  • You receive a call, or repeated calls, from someone offering unsolicited advice on investments. They may try to keep you on the phone for a long time, or try and transfer you to a more senior person. You are told that you need to act quickly and invest or you will miss out.
  • You receive an email from a stranger offering advice on the share price of a particular company. It may not be addressed to you personally, and may even give the impression it was sent to you by mistake.
  • An advertisement or seminar makes claims such as ‘risk-free investment’, ‘be a millionaire in three years’, or ‘get-rich quick’.
  • You are invited to attend a free seminar, but there are high fees to attend any further sessions. The scammer, posing as the promoter, may offer you a loan  to cover both the cost of your attendance at the additional seminars and investments.
  • You see an advertisement promising a quick and easy way to ‘unlock’ your superannuation early.

Protect yourself

  • Do not give your details to an unsolicited caller or reply to emails offering financial advice or investment opportunities – just hang up or delete the email.
  • Be suspicious of investment opportunities that promise a high return with little or no risk.
  • Check if a financial advisor is registered via the ASIC website. Any business or person that offers or advises you about financial products must be an Australian Financial Services (AFS) licence holder.
  • Check ASIC’s list of companies you should not deal with (link is external). If the company that called you is on the list – do not deal with them.
  • Do not let anyone pressure you into making decisions about your money or investments and never commit to any investment at a seminar – always get independent legal or financial advice.
  • Do not respond to emails from strangers offering predictions on shares, investment tips, or investment advice.
  • If you feel an offer to buy shares might be legitimate, always check the company’s listing on the stock exchange for its current value and recent shares performance. Some offers to buy your shares may be well below market value.
  • Never commit to any investment at a seminar – always take time to consider the opportunity and seek independent financial advice.
  • If you are under 55, watch out for offers promoting easy access to your preserved superannuation benefits. If you illegally access your super early, you may face penalties under taxation law.

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Henry Sapiecha

DATING SITE SCAMS 15 VIDEOS – SERIES 2

1…Panorama Tainted Love Secrets of the Dating Game BBC documentary 2013

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2…Beware Nigerian Online Dating Scams

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3…10 Most Horrifying Real Online Dating Scams

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4…Romance Scams ~ The Faces Behind The Masquerade

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5…Exposing How Women Manipulate Men

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6…CyberGuy on Dr. Phil: How To Avoid Catfish Dating Scams

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7…Insight: Video Scams – Love Bait

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8…Romance fraud – Mastermind Ghanaian Romance Scammer

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9…We Find Them: Mr. Right Turns Out Wrong

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10…Online Dating Secrets to Being More Desirable

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11…10 CRAZY Online Dating Experiences

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12…How to Tell Fake Profiles on Dating Sites

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13…Online Dating Site Scam

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14…International Dating Scams – Who Are You Really Talking To?

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15…5 Cruel Online Dating Scams

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Henry Sapiecha

SCAMMERS 15 VIDEOS TO WATCH FOR YOUR PROTECTION-SERIES 1

1…Secrets of The Scammers (Fraud Documentary)

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2…Nigerian Scams Documentary 2016 : Nigerian Scammers Show No Mercy !

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3…$500,000 scammed from a woman by 5 NIGERIANS

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4…Woman loses $150,000 in online dating scam

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5…BBC Series “You have been Scammed – Street Lottery Scam”

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6…Bernie Madoff : Scamming of America – The $50 Billion Ponzi Scheme

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7…How Suze Orman SCAMMED the World (2016)

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8…Internet Scammers – Documentary 2015

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9…Internet Scammers and Caught on Tape

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10…Credit card Scammers caught on camera

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11…Credit Card Thieves Caught on Tape Using Skimmers | Nightline | ABC News

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12…SCAMMED in China – The man trap

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13…Wham Bam Thank You Scam

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14…Scam City Delhi – Should Not Be Missed

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15…Scam City | Rio de Janeiro | Full Episode

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Henry Sapiecha