Lonely hearts still waiting for their soulmate are easy prey for online dating scams.
Many people search for love through online dating sites, dating apps, or social media. Unfortunately, before you find your prince (or princess), you have to eliminate the frogs.
"Romance" scammers, sometimes referred to as "sweetheart" scammers take advantage of vulnerable people, especially divorced women over 40, by posing as an eligible romantic prospect.
How romance scams work
It all starts with a fake online profile. Scammers may use a fake name or steal the identity of a real person. There is often more than one person perpetuating the scam - there have been reports of a room full of people working from the same script. Often they portray their fictional selves as living overseas or on active duty in the military. This gives them a good reason for why they cannot meet their intended in person.
Romance scams are a long form of social engineering. The scammer can take weeks building an interesting backstory that draws their victim in, but they often express strong emotional feelings in a short period of time, which keeps the victim psychologically engaged. They use words filled with love, share personal information, and sometimes even send their victims small gifts.
Once trust is established, the scammer will push to take the communications to email or an instant messenger service. The new online lover will soon have a problem which requires money to fix. It could be a personal emergency like a family member who needs immediate medical attention, or some kind of financial hardship like a failed business or street mugging.
A shot to the heart
While declaring their love and devotion for the victim continually, the scammer may directly ask for money to be wired to them, send a check or money order and ask their sweetheart to cash it for them, or send a package and ask it to be reshipped to a different address. The Federal Trade Commission warns that scammers are now upping the ante and engaging in online bank fraud.
"They ask their love interest to set up a new bank account. The scammers transfer stolen money into the new account, and then tell their victims to wire the money out of the country. Victims think they’re just helping out their soulmate, never realizing they’re aiding and abetting a crime," writes the FTC in their consumer blog.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reports that the average complainant loses over a hundred thousand dollars to internet dating scams. They saw more than $82 million in victim losses in the last six months of 2014. Females suffered 82 percent of the losses; males sustained the remaining 18 percent.
Recognizing an online dating scammer
The online dating scam is a variation on the Nigerian scam, which started before the days of the internet. Here are tips from the FBI on how to identify a dating scammer.
Your online “date” may only be interested in your money if he or she:
- Presses you to leave the dating website you met through and to communicate using personal e-mail or instant messaging
- Professes instant feelings of love
- Sends you a photograph of himself or herself that looks like something from a glamour magazine
- Claims to be from your home country and is traveling or working overseas
- Makes plans to visit you but is then unable to do so because of a tragic event
- Asks for money for a variety of reasons (travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospitals bills for child or other relative, visas or other official documents, losses from a financial setback or crime victimization).
If an online dating scam happens to you or someone you care about, please report it at ftc.gov/complaint — click on Scams and Rip-Offs, then select Romance Scams.