As Valentine’s Day approaches, it pays to be extra careful if you’re looking online for that perfect somebody. I hate to be a buzzkill, but blind love nowadays can get costly in unexpected and heartbreaking ways.
With the increase in online dating options, con artists of all stripes have followed suit in developing new ways to lure the unsuspecting into relationships with the sole aim of bilking unsuspecting victims.
And they’re getting quite adept. The FBI said the number of victims filing complaints exceeds 18,000, with more than $362 million in losses. In fact, the romance fraud ranks as the second costliest scam in terms of victim loss and the seventh most commonly reported scam to the agency.
Here’s how it typically works: A scammer creates a phony profile either on a dating site or on social media and then methodically cultivates an online relationship with their target. The idea is to gradually build up a relationship over time and get the victim to trust them. Then they get to the real business at hand.
Consider this recent real-world example:
At first, the victims received requests from their online boyfriends for small gifts, like gift cards for iTunes or cell phones. As the relationships evolved, so did the size of the gifts. The men, who all used false identities, claimed to be Americans working overseas and needed money to help complete a project or to return to the U.S., according to the Justice Department indictment outlining how the perpetrators operated their scam on victims in Oklahoma.
This is a familiar tactic for romance scammers, who exploit their victims’ desire to find companions and then get their targets to send money or provide personal financial information. In certain cases, victims are persuaded to buy items of value or even to launder money.
Who’s at risk? Everyone, no matter their age, education and income. But sadly, according to the FTC, older adults over 70 are most frequently victimized, suffering a median loss of approximately $10,000 per incident.
There are no one-size-fits-all answers for the best way to protect yourself against romance scams. But common sense is always going to be your best friend. It pays to be careful and use your best judgment. For instance, you can’t assume that dating sites conduct criminal background checks when an account is registered - or that it can even distinguish phony identities from real ones. Other things to keep top-of-mind:
- If you’re communicating with someone on a dating site, think twice if your romantic interest suddenly asks you to communicate on another platform or phone. Treat the request with caution.
- If someone asks for money, help or any other sort of financial assistance, that’s a red flag.
- Don’t help open a new bank account or transfer or ship merchandise.
- Alarms should go off if someone asks you to buy them reload cards or gift cards from vendors like Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.
- Scammers like to claim to be U.S. soldiers serving overseas. They may indeed be legitimate servicemen, but it still pays to be wary.
- Don’t share any of your personal data, such as bank account information, Social Security or credit card numbers.
- Do a reverse image search to check whether someone's profile picture is being used elsewhere and where. You may be able to learn whether it is linked to reporting on other scams or victims. Learn more here.
Lastly, if you think you’re being scammed, don’t keep it to yourself. Some people really think they are in a legitimate relationship so it’s important that you tell someone about it – particularly if you’re sending any money. When people decide they can handle this on their own, that's usually when they start losing money or divulging personal information.
And if you do fall victim to a romance scam, file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and report it to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. Also, inform the website or app where you met the scammer. And if it turns out that you did buy a gift card for a romance scammer, contact the card issuer and let them know that you paid a scammer with the gift card. There are no guarantees but ask if whether they can refund your money.
Other than that, here’s hoping you find that special somebody. Happy Valentine’s Day!
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