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Online hookup sites see thefts, assaults
Crimes linked to internet sex on the rise, officials say
By PHIL LaPADULA | Jun 8, 2:49 PM

The smiling young man in the muscle shirt looked like a good catch.

     
Ray Wenzel, 35, was arrested April 21 in Philadelphia, accused of robbing gay men whom he met on internet dating sites. According to police, at least 15 to 20 gay men fell victim to Wenzel's scheme.
After corresponding for about six hours on Manhunt.net, Joshua Sacks decided to invite the handsome stranger to his home in Washington, D.C., for some fun on the evening of April 12.

But looks, and internet profiles, can be deceiving. Sacks' dream date turned out to be a nightmare.

"Either he drugged me or I passed out," Sacks said. "I think he may have given me GHB."

When he awoke, Sacks discovered that the stranger, who would later be identified as Ray Wenzel, had left after allegedly stealing his Audi convertible, his passport, credit cards and checks. Later that day, Wenzel allegedly used Sacks' passport to cash a check.

On April 21, Philadelphia police arrested Wenzel, 35, after an alleged crime spree that spanned at least two states and Washington, D.C., in which numerous gay men seeking sexual encounters or dates via the internet were apparently victimized.

Wenzel faces charges of theft, possession of narcotics and stealing a car, according to Beth Skala, public information officer for the Philadelphia Police Department. At the time of his arrest, he was also wanted on several other charges, including identity theft and credit card fraud, in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, Skala said. 

Most victims cruising sex sites

Wenzel is one of several suspected cyberspace predators prowling internet dating sites for potential victims. In fact, law enforcement officials say internet rip-off schemes related to sex and romance sites are among the fastest growing segments of the overall online crime problem.

"We've definitely seen an increase in online dating crimes in the past five years," said Sgt. Brett Parson, commander of D.C. Police Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit, who was involved in investigating the Wenzel case.

Parson said gay victims of internet dating crimes are "overwhelmingly men cruising for sex" on sites like Manhunt, as opposed to the more relationship-oriented dating sites.

According to Parson, Wenzel is suspected of victimizing at least 15 to 20 gay men. When Wenzel was arrested, police found driver's licenses and other identification belonging to alleged victims in Florida, Parson said. But it could not be confirmed through Florida authorities that Wenzel was wanted for any crimes in the state at the time of his arrest.

In a November 2005 case, police arrested Brett Chasen Wolfe in the lobby of an apartment building in Washington, D.C. Wolfe is also accused of stealing credit cards from gay men he met on the Manhunt dating site.

The D.C. Police's Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit nabbed Wolfe following a sting operation after an undercover agent contacted him on Manhunt and arranged a meeting.

The alleged 'bear' robber

In August 2005, the Broward County Sheriff's Department in Florida arrested Gregg A. Sullivan after he allegedly robbed a man he met in an online dating site for gay men who identify as "bears" called Bear411.com.

Sullivan is accused of stealing Ken Nyquist's wallet and personal items, including his grandmother's 1905 championship swimming medal, and using his credit card to purchase $112 worth of items at a grocery store.

In the Sullivan case, the computer the suspect used to facilitate his alleged crime also created an electronic trail back to him. After the alleged robbery, Nyquist went back online and contacted other customers of Bear411.com. One of them provided authorities with Sullivan's full name and address.

Sullivan was nabbed after he allegedly pawned Nyquist's belongings, including the 1905 swimming medal. He was originally charged with grand theft and dealing in stolen property. The grand theft charge has been dropped and Sullivan is still awaiting trial on a charge of dealing in stolen property, according to the Broward County State Attorney's Office. He was released from jail after posting bond.

Parson said D.C. police have not detected any coordinated effort or ring of criminals targeting gay men via internet dating sites.

"The cases we have seen have been individuals acting on their own," he said.

Besides the robberies, people have been "raped and rendered unconscious by drugs" after meeting people in online dating sites, Parson said.

Anonymity attracts criminals

Parson said the anonymity of the internet is attractive to both customers and criminals. He said many of those who use online dating and hookup sites may be closeted gay men and may be reluctant to contact police when they fall victim to crime.

"Someone who goes to a gay bar to meet people has some level of comfort with their sexual orientation," Parson said. "There is more chance that they will call the police."

Parson said the criminals are often technologically savvy. They create profiles using fake information and other people's photos from cyber cafes or public libraries, making them difficult to trace.

Stephan Adelson, a spokesperson for Manhunt.net, said the company is limited in how it can respond to incidents because of liability and privacy issues.

"We get phone calls from all types of people making all kinds of claims," Adelson said. "We could be put in a liable position if someone's accusations are not substantiated."

Manhunt, however, does delete the profile of a suspected criminal once the company receives a subpoena from the police, Adelson said.

But deleting a suspect's profile doesn't prevent an alleged perpetrator from creating a new one. In Wenzel's case, for example, his account with the screen name "OnTopofYoutoNite" was deleted March 30, 12 days before he allegedly robbed Sacks. Adelson said the words "known criminal" were noted in Wenzel's file.

But Wenzel created a new profile with the screen name "DCupforFun." That profile was deleted April 15 after Manhunt received information that Wenzel allegedly used someone else's credit card to create the account, Adelson said. 

Safe cruising tips

Adelson said Manhunt posts safe cruising tips on its website, including leaving a trail behind if you decide to meet someone. Write down the person's phone number, screen name and where and when you plan to meet the individual, he suggested. Leave that information in a conspicuous place in your home.

Ask for more than one picture of your prospective date, Adelson said. Meet the person in a public place and have a friend know where you're going. It's also a good idea to have a friend call you during the date.

Paul Bressen, spokesperson for the FBI Public Affairs Office, said the agency has seen an "across-the-board increase" in crimes targeting people who visit romance websites or personal ad sites based on reports to the Internet Complaint Center (www.IC3.gov), a joint project of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center.

In addition to the hookup robberies, a rapidly growing scheme involves a perpetrator gaining the confidence of someone through a romance website and persuading him or her to ship stolen merchandise or cash bogus checks.

Jon van Halsing, co-author of "Cyber Love's Illusions," a book about internet romance scams, said many perpetrators never even meet their victims. They often create phony profiles using photos taken from modeling sites. The scammer, who usually resides in Nigeria or Eastern Europe, persuades the victim to receive and ship stolen merchandise or cash phony money orders.

"They'll target gay, straight or anything in between," Halsing said. "Within a week, they'll be in love and they'll say they want to come over and spend their lives with you." 

'Prince Charming'

Once they gain the victim's confidence, they'll ask their target to cash a phony money order or to receive and ship what, unbeknownst to the victim, is stolen merchandise.

"They claim they can't cash an American money order in Nigeria," Halsing said.

The money order is usually not discovered to be a fake until weeks later.

"Cyber Love's Illusions" includes detailed psychological profiles of potential victims of internet romance crimes. Halsing said some victims are actually hard-working, successful people who nevertheless find themselves alone and missing something in their lives despite their business accomplishments.

"We call that the 'Captain America complex,'" Halsing said.

But perhaps the most vulnerable are people who have just been through a breakup or other traumatic event.

"The next thing you know, here comes Prince Charming over the internet," Halsing said.

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