Patrick Gower On Cyber Crime: Woman heartbroken after online boyfriend unmasked as Nigerian romance scammer

A Kiwi South African woman is issuing a stark warning after her online boyfriend was revealed as a Nigerian scammer.

Thea has always been a romantic. She fell in love with her husband and married young before he was tragically murdered.

Following his murder, Thea and her three children moved to New Zealand to leave her trauma behind. 

After a decade in New Zealand, she met and married someone new - but he died of a heart attack eight years later. 

A widow again and dealing with COVID-19 lockdowns, Thea turned to the internet to find love. Unexpectedly, a handsome stranger reached out to her on Facebook. 

Bernard Giuseppe described himself as a 69-year-old Italian American. He said he was a father, architect and animal lover who lived in Auckland.

Thea quickly fell for him, but Bernard said he was worried she was a scammer because he'd been scammed by a woman before. 

"He wanted to see if I am the real person," Thea said. 

To prove she was the real deal, Thea provided him with scans of her passport and driver's license and he did the same in return. 

Now he trusted Thea, Giuseppe turned to her for help with a predicament. 

Giuseppe said he'd flown to Singapore to work on a construction project. 

He said he was overseeing the construction of an apartment building and had to pay a resource consent fee. 

Giuseppe sent Thea a copy of his first-class ticket to Singapore, the resource consent form and a screenshot of his bank account showing he had $3.1 million. 

He said he couldn't access his account from Singapore and asked Thea to send him money. Thea decided to send him $7000 from her credit card account but, thankfully, her bank manager had other ideas. 

"I can't believe that all that we talked [about] that someone can be a scammer," Thea told Patrick Gower for his documentary On Cyber Crime, adding part of her still believed Giuseppe was real. "The money is not so important as what they do to your soul.

"[The bank manager] told me he cancelled the transaction and that it is a scam and I was so upset. I said, 'It's not a scam, it's my money, I want it to be transferred' and he said, 'No, this is a scam and you have to block this man because he is going to try again and again.'"

After Giuseppe didn't get his money he told Thea he would never scam anyone and accused her of having trust issues.

Giuseppe proceeded to break things off with Thea, telling her in a final Whatsapp voice message: "Hello honey, I got your message. I know your fears - I understand it. I would not lie to you, I feel really hurt that you still even have it in your mind that I might be a scammer. The fact that I have given my heart to you - as you can see, the problem is not me right now.

"You're the one who has some trust issues. I just want us to be able to get past this and move on with our lives." 

Giuseppe previously said he lived at an address in Parnell - one of Auckland's richest suburbs. His address was printed on an image of a New Zealand Drivers' Licence he'd sent Thea - so Gower went to investigate.

Enlisting the help of a private investigator Daniel Toresen, Gower discovered the driver's licence sent to Thea was a simple template the scammer had purchased online.

Gower also visited the Parnell address written on the template. The man who answered the door said, to his knowledge, nobody called Bernard Giuseppe had ever resided there.

Thea. Photo credit: Three

Another twist

The story threw a curveball when a woman contacted Toresen saying she too had been scammed by someone by the name of 'Bernard Giuseppe.'

Toresen told Gower Giuseppe gave the second woman the exact same information she'd given Thea - he lived in Parnell and was working on a construction project in Singapore.

In the case of the second woman, Giuseppe asked her to send him $35,000 - she sent him $3000.

Upon further investigation of Giuseppe's Facebook activity, Toresen concluded Thea and the second woman had both been caught up in a Nigerian romance scam.

A reverse Google image search of Giuseppe's Facebook profile photo unveils another profile for an Italian man by the name of Raffaele Barberio. 

Ultimately, Barberio had his identity stolen by "Giuseppe".

"I'm so sad about this," Thea told Gower. 

"[The fact] someone can walk over your emotions and your life like you're dirt… I don't want anyone to go through it.

"I'm really so shocked - I can't believe it."

To give Thea closure once and for all "Giuseppe" didn't exist, Gower contacted the real man behind the photo - Barberio.

After seeing and talking to Barberio over a video call, Thea came to terms with the fact "Giuseppe" wasn't real.

"I'm so sorry they used your identity," Thea told Barberio. "I'm sorry this happened and you were involved in it."

Ironically, Barberio said he was the chairman of an association working to protect the privacy of Italians.

"This is the paradox," Barberio said.

'It's just shocking' 

Thea wasn't the first person to fall for a Nigerian scam. The country has a global reputation for its industrial levels of online scamming.

Even before email was invented, there was the Nigerian prince scam, where victims received a fax from a so-called "prince" wanting to "share his wealth with them" - all they had to do was pay a "transfer fee". 

"People are still falling for that one," said Bronwyn Groot, a fraud and scam consultant. "Once you start losing money, it's really hard to stop because it's only ever one more payment until you're actually bled dry of all of your money.

"I don't know how many people I have seen that have lost over $1 million - it's just shocking."

Who was running the scam? 

To determine who the culprit was behind the global scam against Thea, Gower hounded the number "Giuseppe" used to call her and, eventually, received a response via voice message.

While the man wouldn't name himself, he confirmed he was a Nigerian romance scammer.

"The truth is, in Africa here, this is a way to escape poverty for them," the man said in the message. "They don't want to go into armed robbery, don't want to harm anyone physically. This is the only way we can do this and not feel the guilt too much because you don't get to see them."

But the scammer admitted the romantic side of the scam came with issues.

"You end up getting emotionally attached to these people but that's part of the craft," he said.

"There are victims that have lost more than $10,000. As for Thea, I can honestly say that I don't feel the same level of compassion that I feel for some of my victims."

Watch the full Patrick Gower: On Cyber Crime documentary on ThreeNow.