If you’re feeling romantic because Valentine’s Day is on the horizon, don’t get too overenthusiastic. Romance scams appear to be making the rounds, and you don’t want to become a victim of love – there are enough of them already, according to the latest figures from the National Consumers League.
The category of “friendship and sweetheart swindles” made the group’s top 10 list of most common scams in 2018. In fact, that category showed the biggest jump since the year before, increasing by more than 45 percent. The average loss reported by the victims was $18,831, by far the most financially devastating of the scams reported to the Consumers League.
The organization describes romance scams this way: “Con artist nurtures an online relationship, builds trust and convinces victim to send money.”
These crimes are made easier nowadays with the prevalence of online dating and social media. A Pew Research Center study showed that nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults consider online dating a good way to meet people, and Match.com, one of the most popular dating sites, says people 50 and older are its fastest-growing share of users, according to AARP.
Through those channels, con artists are able to “create compelling backstories and full-fledged identities, then trick you into falling for someone who doesn’t even exist,” according to the Better Business Bureau.
In some cases, of course, it’s just a sad and lonely person hiding behind a fake profile. But more often it’s the first step in a phishing scheme to gain your trust and trick you into sending money.
The con can consist of anything from your bogus sweetheart needing money to come meet you to he or she needing help with a health problem or an emergency.
A particularly insidious version is the one in which the fraudster pretends to be in the military. This can appear legitimate because an online persona can be created from public records of current military personnel. And it’s often successful because “when military members are deployed they are less likely to discover that someone is using their information,” according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.
Here are some warning signs to watch for:
• Your new honey emails you a photo that looks more like a model from a fashion magazine than a regular run-of-the-mill snapshot.
• The person pressures you early on to leave the dating website and communicate through email or texting.
• He or she lavishes you with attention, quickly talking about a future together. “They often say they’ve never felt this way before,” according to the BBB.
• The person avoids meeting you, with excuses such as he or she is traveling or living overseas because of military duty.
One sure way to protect yourself is easy: never send money or personal information to someone you’ve never met. A big red flag is when the person asks you for credit card information in order to book a trip to see you.
Do research. Often scammers base their profiles on photos they’ve stolen online. The BBB advises doing a reverse image lookup using a website like tineye.com or images.google.com to see if the same photo appeared elsewhere. You can also search online for a profile name, email or phone number.
Ellen Marks is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-844-255-9210.