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Don't Let a New Sweetheart Swindle You Out of Cash

The saying “love hurts” is particularly true for consumers who have searched for romance online, only to lose thousands of dollars to a supposed suitor. As the much-publicized story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti T'eo recently illustrated, no one is immune from being a victim of online romance scams. This Valentine’s Day, the National Consumers League is warning consumers to steer clear on online romance or friendship scams.

The story of a consumer we'll call "Susan," who contacted NCL's Fraud Center, is typical. "Susan" had befriended a man who said he was from her hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, but was working as an engineer in Nigeria. He wooed Susan for two months – sent her flowers and said, “I love you,” – before he asked her for money. Now, $35,000 later, Susan has taken out a second mortgage on her house to pay off the credit card debt she amassed sending him money.

Another victim we’ll call "Donna" cautiously ventured into the world of online dating. Within a week, she began to chat frequently with a man she met on one of these sites. Over the next seven months, he convinced Donna that he was a wealthy businessman, who lived in a nearby city and was temporarily in Africa on business. In October, he said his contract in Africa would soon be up and that he wanted to meet. The catch was that he needed $250 to hold him over until a check cleared. He acted offended when she expressed her hesitancy to give money to a stranger. Not wanting to lose her new friend, she sent him the money, and later another $1,500. Unfortunately, Donna then never heard form him again.

“Scam artists take time to cultivate victims and gain their trust,” said John Breyault, Director of NCL’s Fraud Center. “And they do it for one very simple reason – it pays.” Victims of this scam reported losing, on average, more than $5,500 in 2011, making it the single costliest type of scam for its victims. “Scam artists spend significant time and energy to convince their often-suspicious victims that they are in a real romantic relationship,” said Breyault. “Love is a powerful emotion that these criminals manipulate to extract large sums of money from their victims.” What’s worse, because of the deeply personal nature of this scam, we believe that this type fraud goes widely underreported.

Seducing victims

Though the details of the scammers’ stories vary with each individual case, the request for money is often accompanied by the claim that a tragedy has befallen the scammer, leaving him or her in desperate need of money. Unfortunately, having spent a great deal of time with the scammer and building up trust, victims are often all too willing to “help out.”

Swindlers are very resourceful in the techniques they use to gain trust. A common trick is to steal the real names and photos of U.S. servicemen. The scammer may create a fake profile page on an online dating site or online social network (for example) and then preys on the sympathy and patriotism of victims by claiming to be deployed overseas. They may claim to need funds to purchase leave papers, telephone access, or Internet time. The increase in reports of scammers impersonating deployed servicemen has led the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command to issue a warning against this type of swindle.

Online dating sites aren’t the only place that romance scams originate. Scam artists frequently target online forums that cater to specific interests, such a religious affiliations, music fans, or other groups. Regardless of the interest, the scammers try to get their victims to lower their guard by preying on their supposedly shared interest in a particular topic or cause.

Tips to avoid getting swindled

Use caution and common sense when dealing with someone you haven’t met in person. Never send money to someone that you have not met in person, no matter how compelling or heart-wrenching their story may be. Don’t let your ‘love’ for your online suitor to allow you to be robbed blind.

Red flags that the person you’re communicating with may be a scammer include:

  • Requests to wire money or to cash a check or money order for them and send money back or to a third person.
  • The “relationship” may become romantic extremely quickly, which quick pronouncements of love or close friendship.
  • Claims that he or she is a U.S. citizen who is abroad, that they are wealthy, or a person of important status.
  • The person claims to be a contractor, and needs your help with a business deal.
  • The person makes excuses about not being able to speak by phone or meet in person.
  • The person quickly asks for an e-mail address or instant messaging username (to avoid communication via online dating sites’ messaging services)
  • The person makes frequent spelling or grammar mistakes.