“Love isn’t something you find. Love is something that finds you.” Unfortunately, it’s often not love that’s seeking defenseless victims but ruthless, determined criminals who have complete disregard for victims and laugh at their vulnerabilities as weaknesses.
Romance, sweetheart or dating scams are widespread and are becoming even more prevalent worldwide. Once again, the fraudsters are targeting the vulnerable.
Clearly online romance is big business, but the percentage of fraudulent efforts is unknown. However, like Nigerian 419 scams, only a miniscule number needs to be successful for the fraudsters to profit and make lonely hearts miserable. And not unlike boiler room frauds, some criminal gangs ,use well-rehearsed scripts to subtly exploit victims’ vulnerabilities.
HOW A ROMANCE OR SWEETHEART SCAM WORKS
So how does fraud enter into this arena? Victims might use dating websites that are part of the scam, or they might sign up at a legitimate site. But they still fall prey to fraudsters who also are site members and are able to ensnare and entrap potential dates.
After the fraudster has contacted a mark (or the victim unwittingly contacts the fraudster), he or she will quickly become very friendly and ask the victim to text, use instant messaging or other methods apart from the website so investigators might later have difficulty tracing the communication trail.
A fraudster looks for a victim who’s wearing the proverbial rose-tinted glasses — the overoptimistic lonely heart who has a predetermined image of the person with whom he or she can spend the rest of their lives or at least enter into a serious relationship. The fraudster crafts his communication to be that type of person. For example, fraudsters targeting U.S. citizens looking for U.S. military personnel — a prime category — will send photos of attractive people, downloaded from the Internet, in fatigues.
Online communication continues, the relationship becomes more intimate, and the fraudster might mention love and long-term relationships. Inevitably the victim’s new friend will ask for money. The victim might think he or she is communicating with a soldier on active duty, who eventually asks for money for transportation, medical fees or other services.
Fraudsters might request money for:
- Airline tickets they can’t quite afford or were dramatically stolen.
- Travel visas.
- Money to pay hospital bills for “chronically ill” children or who were supposedly injured in a hit-and-run accident.
- For a business deal gone wrong.
As soon as a victim gives the fraudster money, the relationship intensifies and they exchange more messages. The fraudster will ask for more money for stranger but seemingly plausible reasons. The victim is hooked and will continue to dole out the cash so their “relationship” won’t end and the dream will continue.
Romance fraudsters often target “silver surfers” — seniors who have limited Internet experience and might have recently lost a spouse or partner.
Many websites are dedicated to warning about the dangers of embarking on online romance. One site, www.romancescams.org, claims to have assisted 80,000 victims since 2005. Other sites include databases of scammers and publish photographs of alleged scammers with pseudonyms and possible real names. (I’m unsure of the legality of doing that.)
We need to educate our families and friends about the dangers of using the Internet to further relationships and meet people. (See tips below.)
Top tips to avoid becoming a victim of fraud
- Never, ever send money to someone you haven’t met.
- Take a reality check. If you’re supposedly communicating with a gorgeous 20-something who sends photos that look like a supermodel, ask yourself: Why does he or she need to be on a dating site? and Why is he or she communicating with me?
- Ask lots of questions and verify the answers. Look for contradictions. Remember, you might be dealing with several members of the same organized gang posing as your wife or husband to be.
- Don’t give any personally identifiable information to any person online that you haven’t met. If you do, prepare to spend months or years reclaiming your identity.
- Don’t trust what appears to be a local address. It can be diverted to anywhere in the world.
- Don’t let anyone use your bank account to deposit or transfer money. They might be using it for money laundering.
- Don’t share compromising photos. Fraudsters can use them to force you to continue sending money.
- Keep a record of correspondence.
- Report any suspicions to the dating website. They can check profiles.