A wealthy antiquities dealer from Portland is stranded in West Africa after traveling to Nigeria to find priceless artifacts.
Mark Richardson said he cannot buy a plane ticket home because his credit card will not work. But in a stroke of luck, Richardson has managed to convince a complete stranger living nearly 7,500 miles away to send him money.
The stranger is a 53-year-old mother of five from Duvall, Wash., who exchanged messages with Richardson on Facebook over a period of two months, unaware that the man she developed an online relationship with, was a run-of-the-mill scam artist.
"My heart told me that he needed my help," Barbara Stevens told KIRO Radio.
Stevens had already sent the man $300 via Western Union, and said she would have sent more had it not been for the watchful eye of a Good Samaritan.
David North, a real estate broker who works for a Coldwell Banker Bain branch in Duvall, contacted KIRO Radio after Stevens stopped by his office looking to get information on homes for sale in the area.
Stevens told North that her boyfriend was on a plane home from Africa and had promised to buy her a house.
"I asked her if she had ever met her boyfriend, and she said 'No,'" North told KIRO Radio in an email.
A few days later, Stevens called North on the phone. Her boyfriend still hadn't arrived.
"She told me he needed her to send him some money to buy a plane ticket, because he didn't want to use his debit card in (Africa) because of the extra fees," North said. "At that point I told her there is no reason to send him money, that he will not use it to buy a plane ticket, and he will not come to meet her or buy her a house, because he is a scam artist."
Stevens wasn't convinced and contacted North for a third time on Sept. 3, determined to find a house before her boyfriend's arrival.
"He was building up her hopes," North said. "I have a hard time sleeping at night if I know somebody is being taken advantage of, particularly somebody that's vulnerable, which we felt like she was."
North wanted to prove to Stevens that the man she had come to know as Mark Richardson didn't exist.
On the off-chance that a wealthy antiquities dealer from Portland truly was stranded in West Africa and gravely ill, KIRO Radio reached out to the U.S. Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Neither agency was able to confirm that a U.S. citizen by that name was traveling in Nigeria.
KIRO Radio then looked into a receipt for an airline ticket that Richardson sent Stevens as proof that he had indeed flown into Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos, Nigeria.
The document was a counterfeit - and a bad one at that.
A spokesperson for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in the Netherlands confirmed via email that the ticket was a fraud and quickly pointed out that the word "receipt" was spelled wrong. The name of the airport was also spelled incorrectly.
Stevens agreed to provide KIRO Radio with a phone number in Nigeria that Richardson had given her. The man who answered the phone on Sept. 9 had a thick accent and spoke broken English.
"Who am I talking to?" he asked.
"You're talking to a reporter in the United States. Who is this?"
"I'm looking for Mark Richardson."
"This is Mark Richardson's friend."
"You're his friend? Do you know where he is right now?"
After a brief pause, the man told KIRO Radio that Mark was nearby.
"Can you put Mark on the phone?"
"He's inside. I'm outside. What do you want me to tell him? He's very sick right now. Why are you calling?"
"I'm calling because I think that you're actually the person who calls themselves Mark Richardson and I think that you're scamming women in the United States. Do you want to talk to me about that?"
There was no answer.
"Can you just be honest and tell me why you're scamming these women?"
"I know nothing about this and I'm sure Mark knows nothing about this because he's very sick right now."
"If (Mark) exists, then I should be able to speak with him."
The man demanded to know how KIRO Radio got his number.
"Answer my question. How did you come up with my number? How? How come? Who gave you my number? I will hang up this phone. I will not take your calls again."
The man hung up the phone, and subsequent calls went unanswered. The following day, the phone had been turned off. However, the phone conversation and the fake airline ticket were enough to convince Stevens that she had been scammed.
A spokesperson for the FBI Field Office in Seattle said such scams are common and target those who are vulnerable or trusting.
"We've seen a lot of occasions where a perpetrator says, 'I'm in some overseas country. I'm stuck, I'm in trouble, I need money desperately,'" said Special Agent Cory Cote. "And they prey on certain values that the victim has to try and illicit a payment. Once they get that first payment, they continue to elaborate on the story and evolve the scam and get more and more money."
The FBI offered the following tips to avoid falling victim to a similar scam:
-Never send money to someone you have not met in person without verifying his/her identity.
-Do not disclose personal details over the phone or online.
-Refer all individuals who claim to be in distress overseas to the local U.S. embassy or consulate.
Special Agent Cote said it is uncommon for victims of such scams to recover their losses, which is why prevention is so important. He praised the Duvall real estate broker who spotted the potential fraud against Barbara Stevens and cared enough to help stop it.
Stevens said she believes she would have sent the scammer another $1,000 within days had David North and others at his office not stepped in.
"He's a godsend," she said. "He's awesome. I want to give him a big hug and say, 'Thank you.'"
A spokesperson for Western Union said their employees are trained to not send money transfers under suspicious circumstances. Stevens told KIRO Radio that three employees at a Western Union in Monroe told her she was being scammed, but allowed her to send the $300 anyway.
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