x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Maids in UAE being trapped in romantic online ‘catfish’ scams

Fraudsters are using websites such as Facebook to lure women into sending them money or even helping them to steal from employers.

DUBAI // Online fraudsters are preying on vulnerable housemaids, taking advantage of their loneliness and urging them to send money or even steal from their employers.

In the Arabian Gulf’s latest “catfish” scam, they fake interest in romance with the victims on social-networking sites such as Facebook.

“It used to be exploiting people’s greed,” said David Michaux, director of the security company Whispering Bell in Dubai. “Now they’re exploiting people’s loneliness.”

Mr Michaux’s company has dealt with several lonely heart scams aimed at UAE residents.

Female scammers have also enticed lonely, single male workers into “romantic Skype video chat”.

Later, the victim receives a message threatening to post humiliating video of him and share the link with all his friends, colleagues and family, unless he pays up.

There have been cases of people who have had personal pictures posted online and not been able to remove them for more than a week, Mr Michaux said.

“It’s taken a bit of a turn now,” he said. “They seem to be targeting domestic help in the GCC, normally the Indonesian and Filipino maids.

“A lot of employers give maids internet access and the fraudsters are targeting these people.”

Mr Michaux said the most common example was domestic helpers receiving an offer of marriage from a stranger.

“They tell them that everything’s going to be fantastic and we’re going to have a wonderful life together,” he said.

“They say they are going to send all the marriage documents. Then they say the package has been stopped somewhere and that they need to make a payment of a certain amount.”

Melca Perez, chairwoman of the Filipina rights group Gabriela, said it was not just an issue that affected maids.

“It doesn’t only involve domestic workers and it doesn’t only affect Filipinos,” Ms Perez said.

She said she had two friends who were involved in near-identical cases, where men they had met on the internet had tried to swindle money from them.

“There seems to be a mode of operating,” Ms Perez said. “They have techniques on how to get the ladies to fall in love with them. Both of my friends were told the same stories by two different men.

“He says that he’s an engineer and needs to travel in Asia. Later he’ll send a message saying they were robbed by someone and can he borrow some money.

“This is what is going on on the net. I don’t know if it also happens to domestic workers but I can say that has happened to my friends.”

Mr Michaux said his company had been working through partners on several cases in Malaysia, where the scam would go one step further and maids would be blackmailed.

The perpetrators would threaten to post indecent pictures and videos of the victim to friends and family.

“In Malaysia, the most dramatic case was when criminal gangs blackmailed a domestic help into opening the door for them so they could burgle the house,” Mr Michaux said.

In the GCC region, the cases have not been so dramatic, he said.

“It is happening in the UAE but it’s more subtle. It’s more stealing from the employer, providing credit card information, passport copies, which the fraudsters will then use for something else, possibly a more sophisticated scam.”

mcroucher@thenational.ae