Valentine’s Day is coming, and so are the scammers who want to take advantage of people with lonely hearts.
So-called romance scams happen all year round, but they always ramp up this time of year. Victims in the U.S. and Canada have reported losing nearly $1 billion over the last three years, according to a recent report about romance scams by the Better Business Bureau.
We’ve seen our share here in New Jersey.
Like the guy who swindled a 78-year-old woman he met on a dating website out of nearly $1 million.
Or the guy who was convicted of money laundering and wire fraud after tricking dozens of women he met through dating service advertisements to send him tens of thousands of dollars so he could move closer to where they lived.
Then there was the guy who scammed a woman out of more than $100,000 after he started a relationship on an online dating app. But other scammers are never caught because the victims are too embarrassed to come forward.
Anatomy of a romance scam
No two romance scams are identical, but they have plenty in common.
The bad guys find their targets using legitimate dating websites. Then they take their time, speaking to their marks by phone or through electronic communication, and over time, they gain trust. They don’t ask for money right away. They groom their victims.
And once they’ve established a “connection,” they pounce.
Perhaps they need money to help with their mother’s medical bills. Or they have a sick child, or their ex won’t pay child support. Or they’re going to be evicted because they lost their job, and they need money for rent. Or they need money to move closer to their new love.
After weeks or months of contact, the victims believe they have a real relationship with the scammer. They care about the con artist, and they feel the love right back. So when their special friend needs money, they’re happy to help.
The scammer is smart, though, and knows ways to receive cash while making it difficult, if not impossible, to track. Sometimes it’s a wire transfer. Or a gift card. Or a bank account that’s opened with fake ID and closed once it’s cashed out.
Scams on social media
While dating websites are obvious places to search for someone who might fall for a romance scam, social media sites are also ripe with crooks who search for victims.
You might get a friend request from someone you’ve never met. It’s usually an attractive person, so some users figure “Why not?”
An example of how it goes? We profiled the experience of a guy named Frank who received a Facebook friend request from a woman named Kim. She said she was a drill sergeant with the U.S. Army, stationed in Afghanistan.
Over time, he started to care for her. Then she asked for help getting some packages shipped – and they’re be a payoff for him.
“The packages contained, according to Kim, $10.5 million in cash and $70,000 in gold bars,” Frank said. “She assured me that once delivery was made that I would receive a percentage.”
Over several months, Frank sent money to a go-between to help pay “taxes,” “storage fees” and “legal fees.”
He paid out more than $50,000.
“[It] cost me everything. Multiple bank accounts and CDs along with an entire retirement account,” he said. “I am also paying on a loan I made from my work 401(k).”
None of his funds were ever recovered. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command has a warning on its web site about dating scams, but it was too late for Frank.
Another kind of romance scam targets people who are looking for, well, “mutually beneficial arrangements,” as one website puts it.
These are sites that cater to rich men and women who say they are willing to help others financially in exchange for companionship.
We shared the story of Angie, a woman who posted a free profile on SeekingArrangement.com, a site that promises to hook up “Sugar Daddies” or “Sugar Mommas” with “Sugar Babies.”
She said she signed up for the site because she was tired of dating immature men and yes, she figured she could use the cash.
She met a man who eventually offered to give her a weekly allowance of $2,000, but he would start by giving her $500 to “pamper” herself.
To get the money, she’d need to hand over her banking information. In order to get an automatic deposit schedule working, he instructed, he would make several deposits yo Angie’s account and Angie would have to send the money back to his secretary’s account.
She received $4,670 in payments, and sent out as much. But before long, the deposits to Angie’s account bounced and her account was overdrawn. Her “Sugar Daddy” was gone, and she never got her money back.
Scammers are still using the ruse. Since that story ran, we’ve received a dozen emails from other women who fell for similar scams.
Other scammers go right for the jugular.
They share illicit photos with their victims. The scammer usually sends fakes, misrepresenting who they are by sending photos of attractive people they find online. After convincing their victims to share their own compromising images, the shakedown begins.
“Send me money or I will send your naked photos to your spouse. Your boss. Your friends. Or I’ll just put them out on social media.”
Afraid that their personal photos will be revealed, the victim pays, usually by wire so the recipient of the funds is near impossible to trace.
We saw a similar scam happen on a large scale after Ashley Madison – a website known for setting up married people who want to have affairs – was hacked in 2016. The private information of more than 33 million members was stolen.
Scammers took the info and threatened to go public with the victim’s information and involvement with the site unless the victim was willing to pay.
Other scammers just take their chances and hope to find someone having an affair.
They’ll send mass emails with the subject line: “I know you cheated on your wife.”
If the recipient opens the email, they’ll see instructions on how to pay to stop the scammer from sharing his secrets. But it’s a scam.
How to protect yourself
- If you’re looking for love, heed these tips so you don’t become a victim.
- Be suspicious if someone asks for your financial information for any reason.
- Be just as wary if someone offers to send you money.
- Never give your banking information or Social Security number to anyone.
- Never wire money to someone you don’t know. It’s almost impossible to trace or reverse.
- Be concerned if someone wants to message with you outside of the dating site where you met.
- If someone asks you for money because of a recent hardship, be suspicious.
- If you’re in a relationship but you’ve never met in person because they’re traveling or live far away, don’t send the person money so they can come see you in person.
- If you’re talking to someone on a dating website, keep your address and telephone number to yourself until you know the person you’re talking to is a real person and not a scammer.
- If someone is too good-looking, see if you can track down the photo to make sure the person is the real thing. Use Google’s image search as a tool.