(Un)true Love: Beware of online romance scams

Law enforcement officials say that online romance scams are on the rise. These scams can result in significant personal financial losses for victims. They can suffer psychological damage; lose jobs, homes and relationships; or be forced into bankruptcy. Businesses can also suffer losses.

Criminals troll reputable dating and social networking platforms for targets. They use tricks to get around online security measures aimed at combating fraud. Know the signs of scammers so you can avoid them.

They impersonate. Scammers use stock photos, stolen images, fake names or other people’s names and personal information to construct an identity profile. In general, they say they work outside the U.S., which provides an excuse to avoid meeting face-to-face. They claim to be in construction or oil industries, in engineering, serving in the military or doing charity work.

They create attachment. Experts say that scammers encourage one-on-one contact with you away from a dating or social networking site because this is how they groom their targets. Conversations via phone, text, chat or email can go on for months. Scammers send sweet text messages, poems, cards, flowers and gifts. If a target’s social networking settings are public, they can use the information posted to paint themselves as the perfect match. They profess true love and might discuss marriage.

They work from scripts to stay consistent, because they are typically grooming more than one victim at a time. Unaware, victims are often being passed among accomplices of a criminal organization.

They have a “crisis.” Once the target is hooked on the fictional relationship, scammers fabricate stories to get money. To test the waters, they might present a problem that can be solved with a small amount of cash. They might mention an urgent medical issue or legal predicament. They might say they were robbed, can’t pay for travel documents, have a bank account that was frozen or need a business loan. Accomplices may pose as a relative, friend, doctor, lawyer, financial adviser or diplomat to make a story seem real.

Victims believe that alleviating the crisis will reduce the amount of time they have to wait to meet their love interest (the scammer) in person. When the money runs out, the scammer disappears. Scammers might ask for explicit photos or videos of a victim, which they then use for extortion. Victims can also be put on a “sucker list” shared with other criminals looking for targets.

They like prepaid cards and money transfers. Prepaid cards are widely accepted and available. Once a victim shares the number on the back of a card or gives a scammer a PIN, the scammer can access the balance. Money transfers are a favorite because, according to one official, there could be go-betweens forwarding the money on to a receiver who picks up the funds with a fake ID or cannot otherwise be identified. Romance scams can be used as a gateway to get victims involved with other crimes: Go-betweens could be other romance scam victims.

Victims can unknowingly assist scammers with fraud by transporting or laundering stolen money or merchandise, or by using stolen credit-card information. This is called being a money mule. A variation involves a victim being used to transport drugs.

Scammers may be in a foreign country. Getting involved with these individuals can have severe consequences, like ending up in a foreign prison, kidnapped or dead. Victims who decide to confront a scammer to try to get their money back could subject themselves to further harm or danger.

Here’s what to do if you have lost money in an online romance scam:

• Contact your financial institution and/or the money-transfer service immediately. There could be a chance of stopping or reversing the funds if you act quickly.

• File a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. 

• Report the scam to local police and the online platform where you encountered it.

• File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. 

• If part of the scam went through the mail, report it to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service as mail fraud.

• Individuals across the world can report suspicious criminal activity to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line 24/7: 1-866-347-2423 or online at

• If a scammer had you pay using Western Union between 2004 and January 19, 2017, you can submit a claim to get your money back before February 12, 2018. The refund program follows a settlement with Western Union, which in January 2017 agreed to pay $586 million to resolve charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice.

• If you are a victim of one of these romance scams, experts suggest you seek financial and psychological counseling.

To help keep you on top of these and other scams, sign up for scam alerts. 

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