“She started questioning everything about what I was doing,” said Mr. Anonsen, now 31. “It actually ended our relationship.”
Mostly searching variations of his name, The Times found 65 profiles on Facebook and Instagram that used Mr. Anonsen’s photos. When The Times reported the fakes to the sites, 24 were removed over more than six months.
Many more accounts have used Mr. Anonsen’s photos with different names. One used the name Michael Chris — and began messaging Ms. Holland in late 2016.
Several months into their online chats, Mr. Chris asked Ms. Holland for money. She bought him iTunes gift cards so, he said, he could buy more minutes on his cellphone. She sent money for beer for his birthday. And she paid for medicine for what he said was a sick daughter, Annabelle, in California.
In June 2017, she wired $5,000 for Mr. Chris and a friend to fly to Philadelphia from Iraq. She sneaked the money from a pile of cash she and her husband hid in their bedroom, which represented their life savings. Mr. Chris promised to pay her back when he got there. He never arrived.
That was when Ms. Holland took the sleeping pills and vodka. Days later, she awoke in a hospital bed. “You open your eyes, and the person you didn’t want to face the most is sitting next to you,” she said. “Mark.”
Since 2017, they have met five times with Facebook and with 11 separate congressional offices to lobby for a law to hold social media sites responsible for such scams.
Since last year, Facebook has used Colonel Denny in tests of a new system to quickly remove impostors of commonly impersonated service members. He provided Facebook with 51 photos that his imitators used. Months later, he said, the fakes still showed up.
In an email to Ms. Waters and Colonel Denny last year, a Facebook spokeswoman wrote, “I understand what it must look like to you guys. I hope we can redeem ourselves.”
Finding Michael Chris
Ms. Holland left behind a trail of clues about Mr. Chris.
It started with receipts from Western Union and MoneyGram, which wire money around the world. Those revealed that Ms. Holland had not sent money directly to Mr. Chris, but to people in places like New Mexico and Puerto Rico.
Mr. Chris had told Ms. Holland they were “Army agents.” In reality, the F.B.I.’s Mr. Barnacle said, they were probably “money mules” who laundered payments to confuse victims and the authorities. They could be accomplices or victims themselves.
One of the names on Ms. Holland’s receipts was Maria, a Greek immigrant in New Jersey. She spoke on the condition of anonymity to hide her involvement in the scam from her adult children.
Maria, 57, said she joined Facebook after her husband died in 2010. She quickly heard from men in uniform and developed a relationship with a supposed Army sergeant named Jacob. He showered her with compliments, called her “my Queen” — and then requested money.
Over two years, Maria sent roughly $15,000. She pawned her jewelry and stopped paying her mortgage. When her bank blocked her from sending more, her scammer persuaded her to forward a payment from someone else: Ms. Holland.
“Am tired disappointed depressed I lost everything I don’t know what ales to do,” Maria wrote to her scammer in messages reviewed by The Times.
“Just give me your trust one more time,” the person wrote.
“Okay one time,” Maria responded.
In 2017, the bank foreclosed on Maria’s house. To save her home, she increased her working hours at a factory to seven days a week.
“I don’t know how humans can do that to another human,” she said.
The ‘Yahoo Boys’
All of the clues ultimately pointed to Nigeria.
Maria’s receipts showed her payments went to someone in Nigeria named Victor Ohaja. That name had also appeared in Ms. Holland’s receipts. In her final payment to Mr. Chris, $350 went to Mr. Ohaja. His connection to the person purporting to be Mr. Chris was unclear.
According to the Internet Protocol address for the person messaging as Mr. Chris — a kind of online identification number that can provide a rough location — he appeared to be in Lagos, Nigeria.
The Times messaged the person and presented its reporting about his scam. “Nice job,” he responded. “No one is perfect.” Then he logged off and has not returned.
Nigeria has become synonymous with online scams, fairly or not. Easy internet access, poverty and English are widespread. And those who learn the trade pass it to others, said the men who talked to The Times about the internet schemes.
Three Nigerian men, age 25, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they conned people on Facebook to pay for their education at Lagos State University.
They said they previously made $28 to $42 a month in administrative jobs or pressing shirts. With love hoaxes, the money was inconsistent but more plentiful. One estimated he made about $14,000 in two years; another took in $28,000 in three years.
Nigerian authorities have publicized raids on Yahoo Boys, but the scammers said they do not worry. Some said they paid bribes to evade arrest.
Facebook was becoming tougher on their profession, they added, but Instagram was easy to elude. If their accounts were blocked, they bought new ones; a six-month-old profile cost about $14, one said.
Adedeji Oyenuga, a senior lecturer in criminology at Lagos State University who has studied Yahoo Boys, said Nigeria’s older generation largely rejects the scammers, but many youths embrace them. “Girls would rather date a Yahoo Boy,” he said.
The trail of Ms. Holland’s and Maria’s money led finally to Owerri, a city of 1.2 million people in southern Nigeria.
During his cash pickups at banks in Owerri, Mr. Ohaja left four nearby addresses and three phone numbers, according to an official at a money-transfer company, who declined to be identified because the information was confidential.
There was another name. Maria’s scammer had once instructed her to send a package to an Orji James Ogbonnaya at a different Owerri address. Her scammer also sent a phone number for Mr. Ogbonnaya that was the same number that Mr. Ohaja left during one of his pickups.
In Owerri, the addresses led to dead ends: a convenience store, an electronics shop, a DHL location and an office building.
“There’s no name like that here,” said Peace Benjamin, the building’s security officer. “It’s a trick. Don’t you understand?”
When The Times tried the phone numbers, one left by Mr. Ohaja was disconnected; another went to a lecturer at the local university, who expressed confusion. The number linked to both Mr. Ohaja and Mr. Ogbonnaya was answered by a deep-voiced man who identified himself as Mr. Ogbonnaya. He hung up when he learned The Times was calling.
That night, Mr. Ogbonnaya called back. He denied any connection to Yahoo Boys. “I’m just a delivery man,” he said.
Last month, the same man answered the phone again.
“I don’t know anybody like that,” he said, when referred to as Mr. Ogbonnaya. “I’m Chris. You can call me Chris.”
End of Story
This story was culled from NYTimes investigation done by Jack Nicas who covers technology from San Francisco.