Sweetheart Scams Cause More Than Heartache
In today’s fast paced world of instant communication and social media, many adults have turned to online dating sites to find love, especially around Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, not everyone using dating sites is looking for romance; some are looking for money, your money. Thousands of people have been victimized by online romance scams and wind up not only embarrassed but with financial losses averaging more than $10,000 per person. Shockingly, most victims are boomer age or older. Not only do victims suffer emotionally and financially, but some may have long term effects resulting from an online romance scam.
Scammers may represent themselves as beautiful foreign models, wealthy businessmen, or even deployed military servicemembers trying to attract a lover, but most use very ordinary seeming profiles. Advances in technology have made it increasingly more difficult to determine who really is behind the computer screen. It could be the love of your life, or it could be an individual involved in an organized criminal ring, perhaps in a Nigerian or Russian boiler room.
Online romance scammers work together in groups of six, usually at cyber cafes, sending out hundreds of emails through the dating websites and chat rooms waiting for responses. They follow scripts like telemarketers, which explains why their messages sound so similar or even exactly the same. Since they work in shifts they appear to be online at all hours, but may not remember previous conversations with the victim, or they may even call the victim by another name.
Scammers shape their identities based on the information provided in potential victim profiles. For instance, a fifty year old woman with a love of horses may receive messages from an individual claiming to be a sixty year old business executive who owns a ranch. After a few weeks of charming conversation the victim will be asked for money. Some receive shocking news that their new found friend is in trouble and needs financial help. Others have been asked to send money for a plane ticket so they can meet in person. Some victims have been asked to cash their supposed sweetheart’s pay check and then wire-transfer the money back to them because they are unable to cash it themselves. These checks are fraudulent no matter how real they may appear. Victims who cash the checks and wire money may be liable for the funds sent or even arrested for check fraud like the North Carolinian woman serving prison time for her involvement in a check fraud scheme orchestrated by her online lover.
Of course the scheme evolves over time as scammers hone their craft. There have been reports that some phony sweethearts are impersonating soldiers with the goal of pulling the heartstrings of patriotic women of all ages. Others ask their victims to join in fraudulent business ventures, most involving reshipping schemes where merchandise purchased with stolen credit card numbers is sent to the victims who are asked to forward it to their love interest abroad. No matter what the scheme is, victims who fall for the initial contact receive follow up pleas of help until the victim runs out of money or catches on to the con.
After the victim recognizes that they’ve been scammed and ceases contact with the scammer, they may be contacted by a phony detective or private investigator offering services to track down the scammer, for a fee of course. These impersonators promise to identify who the scammer is and for an additional fee have them arrested and bring them to justice. Unfortunately, this is just another continuation of the scam, and the private investigator may even be the original online love interest.
If you’re looking for love online, these warning signs may expose a con-panionship:
- Scammer Grammar. Scammers often portray themselves as educated American or British businessmen, but English is usually their second language and their messages contain frequent misspellings and poor grammar.
- Zip Code 23401. Sometimes this zip code is given as part of the scammer's home address in Nigeria, to receive wired funds. It's actually the zip code for Keller, Virginia, but scammers provide it believing that American victims expect a Zip code. Coincidentally, or not, 234 is the international telephone dialing code for Nigeria.
- Too Good To Be True. Some scammers appear to be incredibly good looking, usually because the photo on their profile was stolen from an online modeling site. Recently, scammers have been stealing more average looking photos in order to disguise themselves further.
- Mailing Address Requests. Victims are told their lover would like to send gifts or to come visit and therefore need the victim’s mailing address, but the true purpose may be to set up a reshipping scam or some other variety of con.
If you think you’ve been involved with, or are in an online romance scam, please report it at the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). IC3 is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C).
Consumers who believe they have fallen victim to a scam or who would like to report fraudulent activity may do so online here. For additional information please call our office at 800-222-4444.