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Russian dating scams

Date: 2008-04-04

One remote city and so many beautiful women, all desiring nothing more than to fire the passion of British men.

Our pictures below show some of the stunning Russian ladies who have offered themselves on dating and marriage websites recently.

All of them hail from the far-flung outpost of Yoshkar-Ola, close to the Ural Mountains.

One willowy beauty is a hard-up nurse who is desperate to leave her impoverished homeland and start a new life with a man in the West.

Another is a medical student, though she more closely resembles a nymph-like model from the pages of a glossy magazine.

And a third is a glamorous 23-year-old who calls herself "Anna Safina".

In an email to one British man, Anna wrote: "I wish I could be with you. I'm sure that together we will have a lot of fun and spend great time!

"I'm very caring person and loving, I will do for you everything to make you feel good.

"I want to wake up in the morning early and prepare food for you. I want to meet you in the evening when you come from your work and kiss you tender, to hold you and to show you all my love."

It sounded just too good to be true and, of course, it was. In reality, "Anna" was part of a scam masterminded in Yoshkar-Ola, the scale of which was revealed last week to The Mail on Sunday by the FSB, the Russian secret service, after a series of raids.

Thousands of people, including many lonely and gullible British men, have lost large amounts of money after entering into correspondence with women on websites, naively beguiled by their warm words, suggestive chat and the sexy pictures they attach to their emails.

When they were asked to send money, which the women claimed was needed for British visas or to buy tickets for travel to Britain, the men readily agreed.

They never saw the money or heard from the women again.

In a final humiliating twist, they found out, usually far too late, that many of the sensuous "women" with whom they had been corresponding were actually men - part of one of the many sinister Russian mafia rings making a fortune out of such scams.

In one case, a member of a gang posed as a nurse using a photograph of the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet dancer Anastasia Volochkova.

One professional British man was so taken with the photograph that he sent "her" several thousand pounds, spurred on by a sob story from the nurse about her disabled mother who needed nursing care while she came to visit him in Britain.

When he discovered the truth, he was too embarrassed to contact the police.

According to investigators, the same photograph was also used to ensnare a 45-year-old German construction worker called Friedrich Deichmann, who eventually parted with ˆ26,000 (£21,500).

In this case, the gang used a team of female students, fluent in English, to write to him and even chat on the phone, pretending to be besotted with him.

Two of the men behind this particular scam - Sergey Chetverikov, 22, and Oleg Yelsukov, 24 - have now been brought to justice and are serving three years in prison.

But with the returns that can be made on these scams, the pair are likely to be back at work as soon as they get parole.

No other business pays as well in this grim backwater.

Volochkova herself, who left the Bolshoi Ballet in 2003, is now happily married in Moscow and horrified at her pictures being used by the scammers.

"I was enraged that my photograph served the rotten purposes of these swindlers," she said.

"I wanted to take action myself at first when I discovered the scam.

"But then I realised our law-enforcement bodies could do it far better than me.

"This is my advice: those who prefer virtual romances should be much more prudent. You simply can't be as unsuspecting as some of these men.

"This sordid business has recently seen a rapid growth in our country, with a great number of fake sites appearing on the web.

"People are striving to find their 'other half' and these crooks are like parasites on their feelings and hopes.

"I'm glad these swindlers were arrested. First of all, ˆ26,000 is a lot of money.

"Second, I can easily imagine how upset the man, who transferred the money was. He had certain hopes which were ruined in the lowest way."

Another photograph used by the scammers was that of the Russian singer Alsou, the daughter of a wealthy oil tycoon, who has a penthouse in London and is also happily married.

Her pictures were simply ripped off and she was dubbed "Anna Safina".

The capital of the Mari-El republic, Yoshkar-Ola, is 500 miles east of Moscow and is still suffering from the collapse of its manufacturing industry after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Today it is estimated that as many as one in 100 residents in the city is involved in dating scams.

No wonder this new industry is said to be worth an incredible £40-£ 50 million a year to the city.

One fraudster, who poses as an attractive blonde called Anna Ivanova, said: "The average salary in my city is £75 a month.

"The choice here is simple - either poverty or larceny. Now I earn £3,000 a month.

"People are fools if they want to find a wife on the internet.

"It is not real. I correspond with a whole division of Westerners - and they are all idiots.

"And I am quite successful in the business. I can wait to be noble and honest in my next life."

In one case, a dozen British men were fooled by a picture of a model talking on the telephone while sitting on a bed.

One of the names she was given was "Natasha Ivanova".

After complaints to the police, they discovered to their shame that they were being sweet-talked on the web by a beefy, 6ft 4in Cameroonian medical student named Nde Saninong.

The 28-year-old was earning some extra money for his classes at university in Russia.

After the matter was reported to Russian police, he was jailed.

One 45-year-old from London, who wanted to remain anonymous, explained how he fell into the trap.

"I met a woman through the internet. She had a lovely photo, which I now know was taken from a modelling agency brochure.

"I later found they were using the same pictures under a number of different aliases.

"I wrote back a few times, she gradually became warmer and eventually announced she wanted to come over and see me.

"Foolishly, I sent her money for a visa and an air fare and I never heard from her again."

The story is amazingly common.

One British man, a police officer in his 40s, explained how he had sought a relationship on the internet but quickly became suspicious of a young woman who took a sudden interest in him. Her name was "Kristina Budrjashowa".

"I subscribe to a dating website and in January I received an email from 'Kristina' claiming we had made contact on the site," the man said.

"I had no recollection of this contact. She stated she was in the process of seeking to come to England and looking for someone to have a meaningful relationship with.

"Three pictures of a stunning girl accompanied this message."

Although at times her grasp of English was shaky, her enthusiasm could not be faulted: "I'm a lucky girl to meet such good man as you in internet!" she cooed.

"Almost all Russian men are like bears! They are so rude, they can't be nice and polite, they don't want to have a family. I think you are not like them."

She asked if she could stay with him when she came to Britain.

The tacky pattern of conversation is used over and over again by the gangs, often changing nothing more than the name of the man they're conning.

Yet it works, repeatedly, and the money keeps rolling in.

"I have a question," asked Kristina suggestively. "Is it normal if we will like each other may be it is possible to live together?

"Of course if you or somebody doesn't mind. Do you have a big wide bed? (joke)."

The man said: "I played along with her continued correspondence, through the pretence of her last day at work in Russia, her making plans to travel to England and her telling her family and friends what a wonderful man I was.

"Five days after she first made contact with me, she said she was on her way to Moscow in order to sort out her travel documents.

"She said she planned to fly to England and would be in touch the next day to pass on her travel plans.

"At this stage she had asked for nothing from me, but I guessed what was about to happen."

Surfing through the multitude of dating sites, the man had found the same woman on another site, but with a different name.

"This 'Kristina Budrjashowa' was even pictured clutching the same cuddly toy as a woman called 'Karina Zoubayrowa,'" he said.

"I was just waiting for the request for the money. I didn't have to wait long. It arrived later the same day."

Wisely, the man sent "Kristina" a fake reference number to use at a Western Union transfer office.

Kristina never received a penny and broke off contact with him completely.

In another case a Heathrow security worker was forced to barricade himself into his Russian holiday apartment as furious gang members demanded he pay up.

Basil Dalrymple, a 32-year-old from Lewisham, South-East London, had been seduced online by blonde and blue-eyed Irina Zenchenko after paying £70 to an agency called Euro-contacts. He even travelled to Yoshkar-Ola to meet her.

Surprisingly perhaps, this Irina really did exist - but her intentions were far from honourable.

Soon after Dalrymple arrived, she demanded he pay £500 for a trip to Sochi on the Black Sea coast.

"I wouldn't hand over the money," said Dalrymple.

"Eventually these men turned up at my holiday apartment banging on the door and demanding in Russian that I pay up.

"Then her father came back on his own and was shouting through the door. I got out of there as fast as I could."

At any one time it is estimated that Yoshkar-Ola has up to 500 scamming "offices" - mostly situated in rented flats fitted with banks of computers and a satellite link for high-speed internet connections.

"There's a good atmosphere, like in any office where we're fighting to get as many deals as we can to raise the commission payments," said Pyotr, a brash 29-year-old who supports two children from his income.

"In my office there is me and another guy directing it, and we have three girls, all students, who put the emails into good English.

"There are another couple of girls who help with the run to pick up the money when it's sent by Western Union or Moneygram.

"They're not well paid but it's better than any other job round here.

"We use their names on the sites so that they can collect the cash when it's sent, showing their passports at the bank.

"My office turns round about £15,000 a month, and we're all on commission from our bosses.

"I won't talk about them but, yes, you could say that they're mafia."

Pyotr refused to say whether, as is widely rumoured, such gangs have "friends" in the police and local government which enable them to work freely.

"The place is comfortable. We have beds and a Jacuzzi.

"Because of the time differences to Britain and the States, it makes sense for us to work through the night - but you can have breaks. We like to relax, too."

Unlike many of his fellow scammers, Pyotr avoids using celebrity pictures to lure his victims.

Instead, he copies anonymous images he finds on the internet or in glossy magazines.

"Our main targets are men from their late 30s to 50s. We offer them women in their 20s, who may hint about sex but say they're desperate for a family, but don't trust Russian men.

"They claim they're decent and religious but need to get on in their life, and this is their only chance to get to the West."

Does he feel any guilt about what he does?

"Why? These British and American men think they can exploit our women.

"Do they really think that after you've known a girl for a couple of days on the web that she's going to be lusting after you and truthfully saying, 'I love you' and 'Can I come to your bed?'

"They're pot-bellied, middle-aged fools. If they're ready to send their money, they deserve all they get."

Natasha, 21, who speaks English and pays her way through university as a scammer, said: "It's the only work. I suppose it's not nice to fool people, but they think they can take advantage of poor Russian girls."

It seems as if everyone in this seedy city is trying to get a share of the scamming action.

Even pensioner Olga Mikhailova has joined in.

"I rent my apartment to scammers," she boasted. "They are nice guys and always pay good rent.

"Yes, it is true, our city is the capital of scammers," said Andrei, another gang member.

"Other cities have some scammers too, but we have more.

"There are so many that it is almost a legitimate business."

In one raid, staged recently by the FSB, more than 200 people were arrested, including 30 ringleaders.

They were raking in around £250,000 a month.

But despite the raid, many other gangs continue to operate, raising suspicions that the police have turned a blind eye.

"At the moment, 14 men are charged, and the investigation is still in progress," said one FSB source.

"The case is expected to go for trial this summer.

"Very often, the investigation of such cases happens after the police get a complaint from a cheated foreigner in Britain or elsewhere.

"They check the email address and arrest its owner who almost certainly turns out to be a cog in the wheel, small fry.

"Meanwhile, the arrest alerts the bosses who have time to hide all the traces of the bigger scams.

"This time we waited in order to gather more information and catch the bigger group."

Last night, the British Embassy in Moscow said that it receives at least one complaint a week from British men ripped off by marriage and dating scams in Russia.

However, it is acknowledged that the complaints are just the tip of the iceberg.

Some estimates suggest that only one man in 50 complains about the loss of money. Most are just too embarrassed to do so.

"We recorded 58 such cases last year. All were from British males who developed an internet 'relationship' with a Russian 'female'," said an embassy source.

"During the course of this online relationship, photographs would be sent and arrangements made for the female to visit the UK.

"This is when the issue of money arises, first for the visa, then for the flight, bogus Customs clearance and other spurious reasons."

British men also contact the embassy to check the validity of visas scanned and emailed by the women as proof that they are preparing to travel to the UK.

They are usually bogus.

Other men employ private detectives to check the backgrounds of women with whom they have been corresponding.

One such detective is Elena Garrett, a Russian woman who, ironically, is married to an American.

She said: "The client gives us her name, age and everything, and we come back in three days and we say, 'There is no such girl. Such girl does not exist.'"

All in all, it doesn't have much to do with love.

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