Not to ruin the ooey-gooey Valentine’s Day atmosphere or anything, but online dating fraud is quickly becoming one of the costliest consumer scams in America. Victims of these so-called “Romance Scams” lost an average of $5,500 in 2011 alone, according to the National Consumers League – and the figure could be even higher.
“Because of the deeply personal nature of this scam, we believe that this type fraud goes widely under-reported,” the agency says.
Just take this recent study backed by The UK’s Serious organised Crime Agency (their version of the FBI): They found as many as 200,000 British daters have been duped by online romance schemes – 2% of the population.
Scammers love to target dating sites because they’re often chock-full of prime candidates for fraud: people (usually women) over age 40 who are divorced, widowed, elderly or disabled.
A Houston, Texas father recently made headlines when he accused online dating site Two of Us of refusing to refund his $4,800 membership fee.
Derek Stahlhut, a divorced dad of one, said the site selected women for him that weren't anywhere near his type and didn't even like children. (See 12 digital scams to watch out for.)
Because the contract he signed has a no-refund policy, he'll likely never see that cash again. If only he'd checked out the site on the Better Business Bureau first, he would have seen its disgraceful 'F' rating.
Posing as troops stationed in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, scammers weasel their way straight into unwitting womens' hearts -- and their bank accounts.
The U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Department has been working overtime to field complaints from jilted lovers who say their overseas boyfriends duped them out of thousands of dollars.
'The perpetrators will often take the true rank and name of a soldier who is honorably serving his country somewhere in the world, marry that up with some photographs of a soldier off of the Internet, and then build a false identity to begin prowling the Internet for victims,' the CID says.
Where they're usually from: Ghana, Angola and Nigeria.
The BBB warns against online daters who say they're constantly travelling overseas or never able to visit the U.S.
This is often the bait they use to convince their state-side lovers to send money for 'visa fees' or 'medical emergencies' their traveller's insurance won't cover.
Once they've convinced their online mate they're committed, overseas scammers love pulling the sick card.
'Alternatively, scammers may claim to have fallen ill or been involved in a serious accident,' according to Scam Watch.
'They will then ask you for money to pay medical bills or travel expenses to visit you. In some instances you may even be contacted by someone claiming to be their doctor.'
One woman recently shared how a scammer told her he loved her and then milked her for all she was worth:
'I had a profile on singlesnet.com ... Soon, like within just 24 hours, he was telling me that he loved me and proposed marriage...
'He decided that he was going to quit the job that he had as a marine engineer so he could move to be with me and my son. He had to go to Nigeria to buy oil for this new company that he was starting. Ever since then, he has had nothing but bad luck. Actually, I have had nothing but bad luck, including losing about $10,000, my home, personal possessions, and the only safety and security that I had built for me and my son.'
We don't like to stereotype, but the majority of victims of online dating scams tend to be women.
And fraudsters know exactly how to tug at those feminine heartstrings: They'll mention they've got a son or daughter who can't afford college tuition and implore them for a little financial aid.
Or, if they admit to living overseas, they'll ask for cash to fund a traditional family ceremony like a wedding, according to Romancescams.org.
These crooks love to paint themselves as a Bible-toting missionary sent to African nations to help the poor.
Once they've convinced their victim they're working for the greater good, they'll conjure up some terrible story -- like a war outbreak or caring for an abused child in an orphanage -- as an excuse to ask for money.
The scary thing is that scammers have gotten so good at securing the trust of their victims, that it takes years before they're ever discovered.
'(The scammer) requested I take cash advances on my credit cards and that he would pay the balance on the cards, which he actually did, can you believe that? I'm pretty sure this was to gain my trust.
He is using the name Phil Collins, white male, 45-years-old, never married, has built orphanages, owns a Diamond mine and lives in Beverly Hills, CA.'
Turns out 'Phil' was part of a massive Nigerian dating fraud ring being investigated by the FBI.
Scammers love to tell their victims that they'll visit soon but then call or email at the last minute with some story about a canceled flight, denied visa or robbery. (See how one mum sold victims fake Facebook stock.)
'Scammers may take months, to build what seems like the romance of a lifetime and may even pretend to book flights to visit you, but never actually come,' Scam Watch says.
'Once they have gained your trust they will ask you (either subtly or directly) for money, gifts or your banking/credit card details.'
The Scams Victims United message board is rife with stories of heartbreak and busted bank accounts.
Just last week, a commenter shared how she was duped by one of the most popular tricks in the book:
'I should have been suspicious when I was contacted by two men on Match.com that were on business in Lagos, Nigeria ... I was falling in love with this guy! He said all of the right things and luckily I only lost $280 when he told me he was mugged and couldn't afford to feed his daughter and himself.
I should have been suspicious when I Googled the address he gave me and it was a laundromat!'
The Better Business Bureau and FBI are all over the scam situation in the U.S., but it's unlikely they'll ever catch them all.
Protect yourself with 4 warning signs the BBB says point to sweetheart swindles:
· The person wants to leave the dating site immediately and use personal email or telephone.
· They claim they're in love within moments of meeting you online.
· They say they're from the U.S. but are travelling overseas.
· They plan to visit, but are prevented by some sort of emergency or deal gone bad.
If you suspect a dating site is promoting scammers, report it to the BBB here.
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