“Definitely there is always conscience,” said Akinola Bolaji, 35, who has conned people online since he was 15, including by posing on Facebook as an American fisherman named Robert. “But poverty will not make you feel the pain.”
Facebook has long had a mission to “connect the world.” But in the process, it has created a global gathering place where the crooks outnumber the cops.
For digital criminals, Facebook has become a one-stop shop. It has plenty of photos of American service members. Creating an impostor account can be easy. Facebook groups for single women and widows are full of targets. Scammers can message hundreds of potential victims. And they congregate in their own Facebook groups to sell fake accounts, Photoshopped images and scripts for pulling off the cons.
“There are so many people out there that are lonely, newly divorced, maybe widowed,” said Kathy Waters, head of a group called Advocating Against Romance Scams. “Everybody wants somebody to love and to listen to them and hear them. And these scammers know the right words to say.”
Akinola Bolaji, 35, in Lagos, Nigeria, said he has posed on Facebook as an American fisherman named Robert
Facebook said it requires people to use their real identities on its sites. To eliminate impostor accounts, it has invested in technology and more human reviewers. The company works with the authorities to prosecute scammers. Billions of fake Facebook accounts have been blocked over the past year, the company said, though its estimate for the number of active fakes has steadily risen to about 120 million. It declined to disclose a figure for Instagram.
“That job is not finished and we are committed to sharing our progress,” Facebook said in a statement.
Kim Joiner, a deputy assistant to the secretary of defense who oversees the military’s social media accounts, said her team works with Facebook to remove impostors and was pleased with the company’s response. “I’m absolutely satisfied,” she said.
When shown that searches by The Times for three top American generals on Facebook and Instagram had yielded more than 120 impersonators, Ms. Joiner said it was “disturbing.” She said she did not know why the fakes were not eradicated.
“I mean, the numbers are astounding,” she said.
To her friends and family, Ms. Holland was known as trusting and impulsive. Born in Philadelphia, she had spent time in Arizona and Missouri, working as a gardener and in an auto shop. She met her fifth husband, Mark Holland, when she offered him a ride off the side of the road.
In 2001, she moved to Delaware to care for her sick mother. When her mother died in September 2016, Ms. Holland found herself depressed and with free time. She noticed her sister glued to her smartphone, scrolling through Facebook. So she bought a smartphone, too, and created a Facebook profile.
A few weeks later, Ms. Holland got a Facebook message from a stranger. The profile showed a man in uniform named Michael Chris. He told her he disarmed bombs in Iraq.
A selfie of Mr. Anonsen that impostor accounts used on Facebook and Instagram.
“He kept saying, ‘You’re really funny. And you make it easier for me just to know that somebody is at home that I can talk to,” she said. “How cool is this that I could really make somebody feel better?”
Over several months, their relationship deepened. Ms. Holland said she felt motherly. Mr. Chris began calling her “my wife.”
What Ms. Holland did not know was that the man in Mr. Chris’s photos was actually Mr. Anonsen — and that his images were all over the internet.
Mr. Anonsen grew up in suburban Maryland, about two hours from Ms. Holland’s Delaware home. The oldest of four boys, he said he had “wanted to be in the military since the day I could remember.” After graduating high school in 2006, he joined the Marines.
In 2010, while browsing Facebook, he discovered hundreds of unsolicited messages from women he did not know. Many said they loved him. They asked why, after months of correspondence, he was not responding. They implored him to write back.
Confused, Mr. Anonsen searched for his name on Facebook and found dozens of impostor accounts. The problem quickly mushroomed. The women who thought he had duped them harassed his parents online. A new real-life girlfriend grew suspicious.
End of Part 2