From Russia with love: 'web brides' gang caught

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The Independent Online

Plenty of Western men looking for Russian brides on the internet have been conned out of their money, but a gang in the Urals has found a new twist. It posted photographs of some of the most beautiful and famous women in Russia on the net, claiming they were "ordinary" girls looking for love.

The swindlers used photographs of models, pop divas, actresses and porn stars, who were blissfully unaware that Western men were sizing them up online as potential life partners. One 45-year-old German building engineer wired €26,000 (£17,500) over several months to Russia in the hope of meeting a beautiful blonde girl who said she was interested in marriage.

The German was clearly no ballet fan: the picture was of Anastasia Volochkova, a glamorous ballerina with the Bolshoi in Moscow. Ms Volochkova, happily married to a Russian businessman in real life, had no idea her image was being used to snare gullible Western men.

The formula for defrauding foreign men looking for Russian romance is tried and tested. The prospective bride says she would love to meet, but needs money for an air ticket and a visa. Once "she" gets her money, her email address goes dead and her suitor hears nothing more. It clearly helps if the woman is as attractive as possible. The gang that perpetrated this scam is estimated to have made tens of thousands of pounds, but it is not believed to be the only one exploiting Westerners' ignorance of the celebrity scene in Russia. Con artists have lured foreign men with photographs of Janna Friske, a raunchy actress, Julia Nachalova, a wholesome-looking singer, and Irina Saltykova, a bubbly pop star, among others.

The cheated German engineer at least had his revenge. He reported the matter to the authorities, and came to Russia to find his fictional girlfriend. His search ended in Yoshkar-Ola, near the Ural mountains, 500 miles east of Moscow. The town, where unemployment is rife and wages low, has become notorious as a centre for internet scamming.

When the Interior Ministry's "K" division, which investigates internet crime, moved in, it discovered the engineer's Russian sweetheart was two men and five girls operating out of a flat. The girls all spoke good English and specialised in flirting with foreigners on the phone. A search of the flat uncovered 16 computers, large sums of money, including foreign currency, and piles of pro forma love letters.