There’s a very specific danger looming online right now, one that seeks to steal both its victims’ money and identifying information. Under the wrong circumstances, this particular threat can even land the victims in jail.
Romance scams prey on people who are lonely or feel unsuccessful at finding love. Victims of romance scams can come from every income level, educational background, gender, sexual identity, and ethnicity. There’s no single target demographic for this crime because anyone can be tricked by a sweet talker who says exactly what they need to hear.
Unfortunately, with the commercialism of Valentine’s Day all around us, this is the time when scammers up their game. No one wants to be alone on the most romantic day of the year, so now is the time when the bait is thrown out there and the nets are cast, hoping to snare a willing victim.
There are a few different ways that romance scams can manifest, including:
1. Out of towner needs money
One all too common approach is the social media message from a pleasant-looking person who is “intrigued” by your profile picture. You start talking and learn that this person is an offshore oil rig worker, or deep-sea fisherman, or even a deployed member of the military. The job is important, as it provides the excuse to be away from a computer and phone and away from their own funds for long periods of time. That way, it’s much more plausible when they need YOU to send money for some reason. Some reported excuses have included things like a new engine for the boat since the scammer claims to be stranded at sea, or plane tickets home from Afghanistan when the scammer says his mother is in the hospital.
2. I want to come see you, but…
Some reported romance scams have included victim stories about losing a lot of money because the other person was supposed to come visit. When they supposedly arrived at the airport, their ticket was for the wrong flight and they had to pay a fee. Then it was the need for a visa to enter the country. Then it was more fees… and the game continued.
3. Money laundering romance scams
But how do victims end up in criminal trouble for their part in all this? It’s simple. The scammer gets the victim to accept a deposit in their bank account, withdraw the money, then turn around and wire that money to someone else. The victim is now complicit in stealing money from other victims and forwarding it to other bad guys. Just because they’re also a victim, that doesn’t erase their criminal role in the scam.
The internet is filled with very real opportunities to meet someone special, but it’s also a breeding ground for scammers. By using reputable dating sites you might avoid a lot of the heartache, but the companies who run the sites cannot vet every single profile or message for authenticity. At the same time, social media has made it all too easy for criminals to contact victims with sincere-sounding promises.
In order to safeguard your heart and your money, it’s important to adopt an air of caution about anyone you meet online. A good rule of thumb is this: if you wouldn’t fall for it in person, don’t fall for it online. Anyone who declares undying love too early in the relationship or asks for over-the-top favors too soon is not to be trusted. If the person’s background story is a little too shady or falls into the stereotype of the romance scammer, be careful. Most of all, keep your personal information and your money close and don’t be quick to share either one.