On the eve of Valentine’s Day, the FBI issued a timely warning about the rise of “Romance Scams.” This type of Internet crime typically targets older widowed or divorced women. While these women are typically computer literate and educated, they may also be emotionally vulnerable. FBI Special Agent Christine Beining stated: “The perpetrators will reach out to a lot of people on various networking sites to find somebody who may be a good target. Then they use what the victims have on their profile pages and try to work those relationships and see which ones develop.” Predator and prey in the digital realm.
The FBI describes the scammer’s intent to “establish a relationship as quickly as possible, endear himself to the victim, gain trust, and propose marriage. He will make plans to meet in person, but that will never happen. Eventually, he will ask for money.”
As an example, the FBI details the sad story of a Texas woman who initially thought she found love with a man she met online named “Charlie,” but eventually found herself to be the victim of a $ 2 million scam. The woman had been in an emotionally abusive marriage, and was looking for happiness. She met “Charlie” online, and he said all the right things. He told her he was in the construction industry, which is common in these kinds of scams. Eventually, “Charlie” asked her for $30,000 to finish a job in California, and he promised to return it within 24 to 48 hours. She wired him the money. A day passed, and then another, but she didn’t get her money back. Remarkably, she told herself that everything was okay, and that Charlie was just a victim of bad luck. And then he asked for another $30,000. Eventually, when her bank account dwindled, the woman’s financial advisor became alarmed, and advised her to contact the FBI. The ensuing FBI investigation eventually led to the arrest of two Nigerians posing as South African diplomats who came to the U.S. to collect money from the woman on behalf of “Charlie”, who claimed he was paid $42 million for a construction project he completed in South Africa. In July 2016, the two men pled guilty for their roles in the scam, and they were sentenced to 36 months in prison. However, “Charlie” remains at large.
In 2016, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received 15,000 complaints regarding these types of scams, and the losses associated with the scams exceed $230 million, with California listed among the states with the highest number of victims.
The FBI concludes by offering some advice on how to avoid becoming a victim of a romance scam. Be careful what you post, because sophisticated scammers will use that information against you. Use reputable websites, but assume that the scammers are trolling even the most reputable dating and social media sites. If you do develop a romantic relationship with someone you met online, the FBI offers these final suggestions:
Search the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere.
Go slow and ask lots of questions.
Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or Facebook to go “offline.”
Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally.
Finally, if you suspect an online relationship is a scam, the FBI recommends that you stop all contact immediately. And if you are the victim of a romance scam, file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.