FBI/FTC warn: Online love swindles flourish around Valentine's Day

Online dating and romance sites are obviously popular and because of that, regardless of the millions of admonitions to watch out for con artists, they are also a growing favorite of heartless scammers.

The FBI notes that these callous criminals -- who also troll social media sites and chat rooms in search of romantic victims -- usually claim to be Americans traveling or working abroad. In reality, they often live overseas. Their most common targets are women over 40, who are divorced, widowed, and/or disabled, but every age group and demographic is at risk, the agency stated. The FBI said that as of 2012 the average financial loss from these romance schemes is between $15,000 and $20,000. That number is nearly double what it was a decade ago.

The Federal Trade Commission this week wrote: We hear these stories all the time, and they tend to go a little like this: "I met this really nice woman on [fill in the name of the dating site]. Her membership was about to expire, so we switched to email. She's from the US, but she's working in [fill in the name of another country]. We connected right away, and we're planning to meet. But things are a little tight for her right now because of [fill in reason for no money]. So I wired her the money for the ticket...."

You might think that scenario sounds a little too pedestrian perhaps, but the FBI and FTC say it happens all the time. The scammers in fact count on it.

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The FTC says scammers create fake profiles to build online relationships, and eventually convince people to send money in the name of love. Some even make wedding plans before disappearing with the money.

So what to do? The FBI and FTC issued these watch items that they say should make you run away if you hear from you prospective date:

  • An immediate request to leave the site. Many online dating sites have protections in place to help protect you from scammers.
  • Love at first sight. Most of us are hopeful people, but wow love based on a profile and a couple of emails?  Hmm. Sure, explore that, but watch out.
  • Any request for money. ANY request. For any reason: plane tickets, visas, a child's (mother's, whoever's) hospital bill, expenses until their ship comes in.... That is a sure sign of a scam. Block and delete them and move along.
  • Any mention of wiring money. If you wire money, it's gone. Buh-bye. You'll never see it again.
  • Sends you a photograph of himself or herself that looks like something from a glamour magazine.
  • Claims to be from the U.S. and is traveling or working overseas.
  • Makes plans to visit you but is then unable to do so because of a tragic event.

The FBI noted a recent dating extortion scam, where victims usually met someone on an online dating site and then were asked to move the conversation to a particular social networking site, where the talk often turned intimate. Victims were later sent a link to a website where those conversations were posted, along with photos, their phone numbers, and claims that they were "cheaters." In order to have that information removed, victims were told they could make a $99 payment -- but there is no indication that the other side of the bargain was upheld.

According to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), scammers use poetry, flowers, and other gifts to reel in victims, the entire time declaring their "undying love." These criminals also use stories of severe life circumstances, tragedies, deaths in the family, injuries to themselves, or other hardships to keep their victims concerned and involved in their schemes. Scammers also ask victims to send money to help overcome a financial situation they claim to be experiencing. These are all lies intended to take money from unsuspecting victims, the IC3 says.

A study from 2011 said perhaps as many as 200,000 people had been victims of online romance scams and the same study says over 1 million people personally know someone who has been scammed by one of these heartless fraudsters.

The online research was conducted by the UK's University of Leicester found that 52% of people surveyed online had heard of the online romance scam when it was explained to them and that one in every 50 online adults know someone personally who had fallen victim to it. The results confirm the law enforcement belief that this type of crime is often not reported by those affected, in many cases due to embarrassment at having been duped, or through a continuing hope that there will eventually be a genuine romance, the study found.

The romance scam is particularly cruel in that perpetrators spend long periods of time grooming their victims, working out their vulnerabilities and when the time is right to ask for money. "It is our view that the trauma caused by this scam is worse than any other, because of the 'double hit' experienced by the victims - loss of monies and a 'romantic relationship'. It may well be that the shame and upset experienced by the victims deters them from reporting the crime. We thus believe new methods of reporting the crime are needed," said the authors of the study.

According to the UK's Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) romance fraud is organized crime, usually operating from outside the UK. Criminal groups make initial contact with potential victims through online dating sites and social networking sites, and will try to move the 'relationship' away from monitored online space before defrauding people of what can amount to large sums of money, the researchers said. In some cases, even when victims cannot, or will not, send money, scammers involve them instead in money laundering by asking them to accept money into their bank accounts.

IC3 complainants most often report Nigeria, Ghana, England, and Canada as the location of the many scammers.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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