Looking for love in all the wrong places: Watch out for romance scams

BBB warns of online romance scams
BBB warns of online romance scams
Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 1:38 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Valentine’s Day is next Monday and for those looking for love, it can be a particularly difficult time to be alone. This makes it a prime time for scammers to target individuals with cons known as ‘romance scams.’

From Facebook to Tinder, looking for love online is nothing new; but, as technology advances, it is also making it easier for scammers to trick you into falling for them and their cons.

There’s all sorts of advice out there on avoiding scams, and when it comes to emails with people asking you to send them money unannounced, most people spot the scam right away and just delete the email.

However, romance scams can take a different, more personal approach.

We’ve all heard the term “catfishing” where someone online pretends to be someone they are not. While the reasons for doing this can vary, for scammers, it’s a great way to entice vulnerable people into letting their guard down.

It’s something that a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI revealed has been an ongoing problem for people in southeastern North Carolina.

Not who you think they are

According to the documents received, there were thousands of pages worth of victims, all with different stories that largely ended in the same way — with someone asking for money. In some instances, victims paid their scammers and in others, people noticed the red flags and reported their suspicions to the FBI before they lost any money.

One of the common scams is for people to get on dating sites, using fake photos of someone else, and convince their victims to send money for any number of reasons.

One of the reports saw a victim lose almost $1,000 to someone they met on the online dating site Ok Cupid. Here’s how the scam went.

The victim met the scammer on the dating website and was told he was a solider stationed at Ft. Bragg. After a few weeks of texting back and forth, the scammer asked for the victim to come visit him on base, but said he was on a restricted assignment so he could not leave. He then told the victim to make reservations through a website that supposedly was going to pay for the motel room for the visit.

After payment, the victim received another email saying they had to pay even more money. Becoming weary of it, they reached out to the person they believed was the solider they were meeting. He told the victim to pay the money and he would give it back to them when they arrived on base.

After some more hurdles with the reservations, the victim told the supposed solider that they would be reporting the incident — the response they received showed they had fallen victim to a scam.

“Who are you going to report it to? You seem confussed [sic]. Do you think your [sic] the only one who has tried to come see me. You’re funny. I’m not new to this,” that message read.

It’s not clear how that case ended, but it is just one page of thousands that the FOIA request to the FBI provided, all with suspected victims of romance scams.

From promises to blackmail

Losing money is never fun, especially when you thought you might have found someone to share a common bond with. But these scammers have resorted to even more nefarious techniques than simply asking for money for things that might not even exist, like a hotel and trip to visit them. It comes in the form of blackmail and takes some additional technological skills by the scammer.

One of the reports provided by the FBI explains how it works.

In this instance, a solider was returning from leave to their current base. Sometime during the morning of their return, they received a friend request on Facebook from an unknown individual and they struck up a conversation immediately.

Pretty soon into the call she asked the solider if they had a video chat application, and asked if they would like to video call with them. They began video chatting and the woman on the other end of the line was wearing just her underwear. She asked if the solider would like to ‘join the fun.’ After saying yes, the solider then saw their video on the screen and realized something was amiss.

That’s when things took a darker turn, once again.

The scammer then began threatening the victim saying that if they did not send them money, they would post the video and share it with friends and family as well as Army co-workers. Panicked, the solider ultimately paid $307 to the scammer, but that was not enough.

The scammer started asking for even more money. At that point, the solider decided they had had enough, and refused to send more funds, and reported the incident to their first sergeant and then the FBI.

The threats continued even through text messages and the solider continued to block the numbers, but it’s easy to see how unnerving a situation like that can be.

Protecting yourself

Romance scams are on the rise as the internet becomes even more commonplace and internet connections are readily accessible for a large part of the world.

“Confidence/romance scams have resulted in one of the highest amounts of financial losses when compared to other Internet-facilitated crimes. In 2020, over 23,000 victims reported over $605,000,000 in losses, as compared to over 12,500 victims and over $203,000,000 in losses in 2015,” according to the FBI.

That is a lot of money and scammers know that this is big business. There’s nothing wrong with looking for partners online, but it is always important to know who you are dealing with, especially when it comes to sending money.

The FBI released a number of tips for people to protect themselves when using online dating sites, or even just making new acquaintances.

Those tips include:

  • Be careful what you post because scammers can use that information against you.
  • Only use dating websites with national reputations, but assume that con artists are trolling even the most reputable sites.
  • Go slow and ask questions.
  • Research the individual’s pictures and profile using other online search tools to ensure someone else’s profile was not used or to see if that same pitch is being used on multiple victims at once.
  • The individual sends you a photo that looks like it is out of a magazine.
  • The individual professes love quickly.
  • The individual tries to isolate you from family and friends.
  • The individual claims to be working and living far away, whether that is on the other side of the country or overseas.
  • The individual makes plans to visit you, but always cancels because of some emergency.
  • The individual asks you for money. Never send money to someone you met online and have not met in person. It may take weeks or months for the perpetrator to get to the point of asking for money, they are most often communicating with several victims at once, so they can go slow.
  • The individual may ask for your help in moving money. Never help anyone move money through your own account or another’s, you could become an unwitting money mule.
  • The individual asks you to send compromising photos or videos of yourself or asks for your financial information. Never send anything that can later be used to blackmail you.
  • If you plan to meet someone in person that you have met online, the FBI recommends using caution, do not travel alone, and check the State Department’s Travel Advisories before arranging any travel. Individuals should know that some victims that have agreed to meet in person with an online love interest have been reported missing, injured, and, in one instance, deceased.

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