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How fake internet lovers are scamming desperate singles out of millions

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How fake internet lovers are scamming desperate singles out of millions

Hoping to find companionship during the pandemic, a Florida woman signed up for Facebook Dating. Within a half-hour, she met “Damian.” He was an orthopedic surgeon who lived a town away, but at the time, he was in Yemen on a four-month UN Peacekeeping mission.

“He’s very handsome. He’s very flirty,” the anonymous woman tells Mariana van Zeller on an episode of the journalist’s National Geographic show “Trafficked.” Airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m., it explores various global black markets that peddle things like meth, plastic surgery and guns.

She adds to van Zeller that Damian “tells me, ‘I am extremely grateful for having you in my life. Spending time with [you] drowns out my other concerns and lights up my life.’

“My heart was really overtaking my brain.”

And Damian was about to overtake her bank account. He concocted a story about armed men attacking his facility and him being scared for his life. He asked the woman for $15,000 to help pay out his contract so he could return home and be with her. She forked it over, and lost both the cash and the relationship she thought she had.

A team of romance scammers in Ghana work together to bilk money from their online paramours.
National Geographic

She wasn’t the only one. During the pandemic, cases of love-seeking men and women being duped out of their money by online suitors skyrocketed.

“There was a 300 percent increase in romance scams because of the pandemic and exploitation of people’s loneliness,” van Zeller told The Post. “In 2020, there was $300 million stolen from American banks.”

In a new episode of her docuseries, airing Wednesday, van Zeller dives into the underworld of romance scams, speaking to both victims who were bilked out of money and perpetrators, many of whom operate out of Ghana, which has become a hub of online-dating fraud.

The four female victims in the episode do not give their names, but they all have similar tales of being courted with poetry, flirty messages and constant online attention.

One divorcée paid her suitor nearly $300,000. A widower gave her beau over $1 million, while one 68-year-old woman forked over a whopping $2.8 million dollars.

“We found women willing to speak to us because they wanted to raise awareness. But once we met the scammers, most of them were scamming men,” said van Zeller, adding that male victims are less likely to report.

Mariana van Zeller, host of “Trafficked With Mariana Van Zeller,” explores the underworld of online love scams.
National Geographic

Duped lovers would be surprised to learn their dream companions are actually teams of criminals using scripts to create a bond and forged documents to pose as Americans.

Members of the crew have different roles: There are the hunters, who find potential victims; the forgers drafting credentials; the actors, who pour on the romance; and the finisher, who swoops in to seal the deal — and takes a larger percentage of the haul. Van Zeller interviews numerous operators in the West African nation, who refer to victims as “clients,” giving their business an air of respectability.

“In Ghana they speak English,” van Zeller said. The country is “technologically advanced, but it also has a lot of economically disadvantaged people without opportunities. There, if you are growing up in the slums, you see people scamming, so you do it. [The practice] has even been popularized in music and culture there.”

Members of one crew, whose faces on the show are obscured by masks, say they can be so convincing because they patiently wait for the right moment to ask for money, sometimes dragging it out over a year. They even will send their targets money and gifts to appear sincere, and will do whatever it takes to ensnare their victims.

In the episode, one male romance scammer asks a priestess to perform black magic on a man in Virginia named Michael, who has already forked over more than $10,000 to his “girlfriend.” Hoping to bilk him for more money, the scammer prints out a picture of Michael and presents it along with alcohol to the priestess, who puts a love spell on the man living over 5,000 miles away.

“The priestess takes part of the money,” said van Zeller. “So it’s almost like they are scamming the scammer.”

Ultimately, though, preying on someone’s emotions produces a strange side effect: affection.

A pair of romance scammers posing a girlfriend to a man named Michael in Virginia.
A pair of romance scammers posing as a girlfriend to a man named Michael in Virginia.
National Geographic

“I actually think there is a lot of empathy. We spoke to a man named Odo who stopped doing it because he couldn’t take it anymore. His last victim was evicted from her house. In black markets, you often find people who don’t care, but that was not the case here,” van Zeller revealed. “They said it was impossible to not form a connection.”

Indeed, one woman van Zeller spoke with “dated” a man for two years. When she learned that it was a scammer in Ghana, she was also surprised to hear he wanted a real relationship with her. “He was crying and told her he loved her,” said van Zeller.

And then there’s the man who duped Michael. “I started falling in love with him — not for intercourse or whatever it is, but I felt for him,” the scammer says in the show. “Michael is kind-hearted. I think Michael has been good to me.”

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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