Private investigator Therese Bogart looks into Maria Exposto’s case and details everything you need to know about how she uncovers online romantic scams, a must read for anyone with an online profile.
By Therese Bogart
I first became aware of Maria Exposto through a media article written by journalist Lindsay Murdoch in 2014. Upon reading the article in early 2015, I identified the lady in the story was involved in a military romance scam. I contacted the journalist under a pseudonym and he relayed the information to her Malaysian lawyers, who were not aware of her involvement with a scammer. I subsequently investigated into the Facebook account of Maria Exposto and identified three of Maria’s accounts which was not unusual. What was unusual, was a professional looking photograph of her male friend, Desmond Brincat, an ageing gentleman who had no friends showing. Two middle aged women had liked his photo, one from the Philippines and one from Los Angeles, California. As a professional at investigating scams for ten years, my expertise identified the photo of Desmond Brincat as a fraud as had my expertise proved correct in identifying the storyline in Lindsay Murdoch’s article.
I lifted the photo of the person purporting to be Desmond Brincat and placed the image through Google Image search. I identified the person in the photo as The Hon. Leo Brincat Member of the House of Representatives from Malta – he himself a victim of identity theft.
I emailed Maria’s lawyers direct with the profile photo of Desmond Brincat identifying the profile photo that was used to scam Maria on her Facebook account. I received no response to my email. Many victims of scams are approached by persons requesting friendship on Facebook. Scammers carry out their scams through the platform due to the ease of profile creation and non-identification of profile identity apart from an email or phone number. Facebook accounts are created years in advance and sold through the same online platform. Even when reported as a scam to Facebook, the bait may remain due to inexperienced social media content detectors. On this occasion, the profile of Desmond Brincat from UK Glasgow whose profile was Born on 23 October 2014 was removed prior to 6 May 2015. In later media articles, it was reported that Maria’s online lovers name was Captain Daniel Smith.
As a member of MULE, I have investigated several drug related romance and advance fee scams. I know that scammers create multiple personalities that are usually operated by one or two criminals working together. The extra characters are referred to as secretary or representative and they communicate to the victim when the main character is unavailable. They act as an intermediary giving the scammer more strength to support his story and allows one character to retreat in to the background to avoid answering questions that arise. Scam victims may be targeted by other scammers or the same scammer using a different profile to extract more money.
On May 18, 2019 I identified an ABC article updated 11 Feb 2019 regarding Maria Exposto with a photo of the marriage proposal sent to Exposto from “Captain Daniel Smith”
I lifted the photo and ran it through Google Images and identified the real person in the photo as Stephen Murphy, a Seaman in the UK Royal Navy – his identity has been used as Frank Murphy, Steel Skyle, William Pedro, Tony Mark, Daniel Benjamin, Nathan Brown, Ales Anderson and Michael Osborne just to name a few. On the website DelphiFAQ.com there were postings made by victims in 2012 to 2015 which coincides with Maria’s contact with the scammer.
On May 18, 2019 I identified Stephen Murphy’s profile photo used in a scam posted on Scam Survivors.
I selected the phone number the victim was given +18546771899 and ran it through a phone analysis tool which identified it as a geographic number in South Carolina. Scammers use redirect to anywhere in the world numbers to defraud victims. I analysed the number through the Google search engine and identified the number on Scam Survivors where the scammer used the name “Desmond” in the posting on Jan 21, 2017.
I identified a forum on DelphiFAQ.com devoting eight pages to the military scammer from Ghana using the photos of Steven Murphy from August 18, 2012 to July 19, 2015.
Many women have been scammed by the criminal syndicates using Stephen Murphy’s photo and money transfers lead to Ghana. I identified a warning on Romance Scams from the moderator called “Bix” who posted in a forum on Wednesday April 6, 2016 that scammers have in their possession a recorded webcam of Stephen Murphy.
This romance scam site collects threads on their forums based on the photo the syndicate uses and there are thirty pages devoted to the use of Stephen Murphy’s photos.
I identified a link to the YouTube recording of Stephen Murphy posted by Scamming Scammers published on Nov 23, 2015 stating “The following is stolen video footage of Stephen Murphy used by scammers. It is played in a continuous loop to make the scammer look like the real man in the video. This scammer is using the name Stephen Murphy as well as all his photos and stolen webcam footage.”
The stolen video footage was anonymously reported on October 12, 2012 at DelphiFAQ.com by a user from United Kingdom who posted “The thing that made it convincing for me was the fact he used the webcam”.
Stephen Murphy is now retired and is one of the most used faces in scams. He was never in the US military but was recognised by the United States Army for his services whilst stationed in Iraq setting up an Iraqi Navy fast aluminum boat squadron.
There are hundreds of stolen images of Stephen Murphy listed on the Soul Catcher site which include the username Daniel Smith associated with the use of Stephen Murphy’s photos.
On August 16, 2018 I analysed the name Captain Daniel Smith through Facebook and identified up to 20 fraudulent US military profiles using the name Daniel Smith. These profiles have now been removed but new ones are reappearing and are active today May 22, 2019.
Maria Exposto has been languishing in a Malaysian prison since her arrest on December 7, 2014. She has been handed the death penalty for trafficking drugs and there is no doubt she is a victim of a military romance scam.
Keeping Yourself Safe Online
Romance scammers target everyone, the person does not have to be single and looking for love, they can be married, separated, divorced, widowed, deaf, blind and disabled. Victims can be correctional officers, scholars, military personnel, clergy, teachers, doctors, celebrities, nurses, or cleaners. Everyone is a potential target of a scam. If you have an online presence, you can be targeted by a scammer. Romance scams are ever evolving: where new sites open and Wi-Fi is introduced to new countries, romance scammers will follow.
The first location a scammer will target you is online - any platform on the internet where language is used.
The second location a scammer will target you is to a more private form of communication - Email, Messenger, Facebook Chat, and WhatsApp
The third location a scammer will target you is a money transfer institution - Western Union, MoneyGram, Ria, Bank Account –set up of overseas bank accounts or asking victims to receive transfers through their bank accounts
The fourth location a scammer will target you is overseas travel - Flight tickets are forwarded to their email address to travel to any of these destinations - China, UK, India, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brazil, Cambodia, and Burkina Faso. Bank accounts are set up in overseas countries such as Dubai and Poland using notaries and the identities used are from advance fee fraud victims. Scammers request money transfers to bank accounts in Malaysia which are known to be owned by their Malaysian girlfriends or use family members bank accounts in the United Kingdom. They often launder money through victim’s bank accounts. Scammers have been known to travel to their victim’s house to escort them to the bank in Australia.
Victims who reach location four no longer have any further money left to transfer which results in them being at the mercy of the scammer who organises, instructs and transports the drugs to their hotel room and arranges the transport to the airport upon departure. Having gone through the emails of several drug scam victims, the one similarity is the analysis of the IP addresses linking the emails to Belgium and Europe as the victim is on board the plane. This could be the scammer is travelling alongside the victim or the drug scammer taking over the reins once the drugs are set up for the drop or a proxy is used.
Flight tickets are purchased online and forwarded to the victim’s email address. Hotels are booked by the scammer and hotel reservations sent to the victim by email. Where the victim has forgotten their email login or is inept at technology, the scammer will create an email address for them and give them the password to send through their passport and for them to access the booking information. The unverified phone numbers associated with the email address set up are known to originate from Asia with a business address attached e.g. A fitness centre. Communications are predominantly from the West African regions until the victims begins the flight abroad.
The victim is promised an all-expenses paid trip but is asked to pay for it if he can and the scammer advises him on tourist visas to buy, telling them their visit will only be a few days but upon arriving in the country the scammer has sent them to, the scammer will ask the victim to get themselves to their pre-booked hotel by taxi, upon arrival there may be no pre-booked room and the scammer will once again ask the victim to pay for the room and tells them someone will be there to visit them and pay for their accommodation. The victim having little money on hand is totally reliant on the scammer for their next move, they stay in their hotel rooms awaiting the arrival of the representative to pay their expenses, they may stay in the hotel room for up to 2 weeks. Too scared to venture out on their own as the hotels are situated in seedy areas, unable to speak the local language, they wait on their instructions from the scammer. They may go without food and in desperation will contact their family for help. The scammer may request that they do this but advises them to not leave the country until the representative arrives to compensate them or pay for an extra few days stay. They worry about their travel arrangements and visas, the scammer calmly guides them through the process, at times changing their flight destinations and visa requirements.
Intervention at a hotel does not deter the victim and the Embassy will not help at this stage. The scammer has created a strong bond of trust and friendship. The victim is unable to release himself from the clutches of the scammer in an unknown country without financial help (those that receive aid may fly home then return). They await the representative and flight ticket to travel to the next destination, determined by the scammer. Financially and emotionally drained, the victim is weak when they board their flight and may misplace items.
The victims are asked to throw away their bag and transfer their belongings into the new bag the representative has bought them. The representative befriends the victim and may take them out to a market and purchases gifts to take back to their country. The gifts or goods take up a larger space than the victim had allocated in their bag. The victim accepts the new bag, unaware of the original weight of the bag and is usually suspicious, inspecting the bag and ringing the scammer who encourages them to investigate the bag, assuring the victim that all is above board.
The victims set off of a new flight, sometimes the scammer may ask the victim to take a photo of himself or herself boarding the airplane so that the representative on the other end is able to identify them. The image validates the drugs have made it past Customs and the shipment is on its way or they are used as a sacrificial mule and will be arrested at the airport. The photo of the victim is used to alert the authorities when they arrive at the airport.
At this time, the email IP address changes, no longer are the emails originating from West Africa. They are originating from Europe and Belgium. Upon arrest of the victim, the scammer continually sends demands for response to his texts and emails, each one more urgent demanding to know the victim’s current location.
The victim’s family may be concerned and have reported the travel details to the authorities who flag airport officials. The tip off results in a search, arrest and journey to jail. The victim may not appear to come to terms with the deception, unable to separate the truth from the illusion at the airport. Unknowing the scammer set them up, they tell the Police the story of how they are meeting up with their fiancé or representative, giving the police false names and addresses that have been given to them. Even when jailed, the deception is so deep that the illusion may not fully break.
Victims may be those that are just susceptible to scams and will be scammed over and over again. The scammer lives his life in freedom due to cross jurisdictional laws, corruption in other countries such as Nigeria and/or wealthy connections. His last email contacts originating from West Africa as he either returns home or resumes the communications in the safety of cross jurisdictional law demanding the victim identify his location. The drug scammer syndicate have another victim coming through the same route, the same result, the same jail term and the scenario repeats itself. Same investigation, different aliases, different victim, same airport, same court process in same state.
Private Investigator – NSW & NZ
Master Licence No: 411173248