Love is in the air… or is that the scent of a scam instead? More and more people these days are meeting each other online, and while that’s led to many happy romances, it’s also let con artists to use online dating as a way to scam folks looking for love. In fact, Texas has the second highest rate of online romance scams in the nation, second only to California.
The FBI recently highlighted the case of a Texas woman who lost everything she had to a slick online scam artist. The fraudster, who called himself ‘Charlie’, noted the Christian faith she happily promoted on her Facebook profile and used that to wheedle her out of $2 million. After weeks of friendly emails, pictures and phone calls where they prayed and sang together, in which he seemed to be an average guy working in the construction industry, Charlie started asking for money.
“He was trying to finish up a job in California,” the woman said, “and he needed some money to help finish the job. I thought about it long and hard. I prayed about it. I’ve always been a very giving person, and I figured if I had money … I could send him some [money]. And he promised to have it back within 24 to 48 hours. I thought, ‘I could do that.’ It was kind of a statement of faith, too.”
Hear her story in her own words:
Two years and $2 million later, a friend got suspicious and contacted the FBI. Behind Charlie there were two Nigerian men posing as South African diplomats, using Charlie as a go-between.
If you’re looking for real love online, there are some things you need to know – how to spot a scam artist and what to avoid. Here’s how some common online romance scams work and how you can protect yourself from a broken heart (and an empty wallet.)
How an Online Romance Scam Works
- Fake Profile: a scam artist creates a fake profile on a dating site or social media. Their name and picture may be completely invented, or they may steal the name and picture of a real person, especially someone abroad like a military personnel or an aid worker.
- Ask to Chat Privately: The person may suggest that you stop communicating through the dating website or social media and switch instead to email, text or phone.
- Emotions Run High: You may not have been communicating with this person for a long time when they express very strong feelings for you, showering you with compliments and loving words.
- Inconsistencies: Their story changes, their details don’t match their pictures or profile or their English is poor, despite being a native speaker
- Gifts, Trips and Promises: To win your trust, they may send you gifts, promise to take a trip to see you or send you a plane ticket or make other promises about what they will do.
- Excuses: these promises and professions never seem to come true, but they always have a good excuse.
- Money Comes Into the Picture: They have an emergency, hit a bit of bad luck, want you to pay for something, need help transferring money out of their country or want you to resend money or valuables elsewhere. These may be attempts to directly steal from you or to launder money or stolen items.
How to Protect Yourself from an Online Romance Scam
As scary as all of this sounds, you don’t have to give up online dating entirely. According to Scamwatch, an online scam awareness network, there are several things you can do to protect yourself from a romance scam.
- Do a reverse image search. Use Google’s image search to look for your potential sweetheart’s photo online. Click on the camera icon and either upload or link to their profile pictures. Check over the results and see if anything odd appears, like other names or descriptions that don’t match how they’ve represented themselves.
- Never send money to anyone you don’t know. Keep it simple – if you haven’t met them, don’t know them well, and can’t be sure it’s really them asking for money, do not send them money or buy them valuable items with your money.
- Be careful with pictures or video. Does your new partner want you to send some sexy photos or videos their way? Be cautious. They could use it later to blackmail you.
- Watch out for money laundering. Don’t transfer money or valuable items for someone else. You could be laundering money or stolen goods for them, which is a serious crime.
- Always be thinking, “Could this be a scam?” It’s tough, but don’t be taken in by someone’s sweet words and flattery. Consider each move they make with a critical eye and look for inconsistencies, excuses and anything odd.
- Be wary about meeting in person. If you’re going to meet them in person, tell family and friends where you are going or take someone with you. It’s not a good idea to meet someone alone for the first time overseas.
Think You’re a Victim of the Scam? Contact the FBI
Do you suspect an online relationship might be a scam? First of all, stop all contact immediately. Think you’re the victim of a romance scam? File a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.