Dating scams can be costly

Valentine’s Day 2014 has come and gone – if only the same thing could be said for online dating scams.

But as long as there are people who can be persuaded to part with thousands of dollars while searching for love with virtual strangers – as was the case recently with a California woman who lost more than $300,000 of her retirement savings – online romance scams are going to be around for many Valentine’s Days to come.

And there is nothing to love about that.

Locally, the regional office of the Better Business Bureau says it doesn’t get many calls about online dating scams, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening here in New Mexico, says Connie Quillen, executive assistant at the Albuquerque-based Better Business Bureau Serving New Mexico and Southern Colorado.

“People are embarrassed not only that they were taken advantage of, but because of the situation that led them to it,” she told the Journal.

“It’s a double whammy. They may be embarrassed about searching for love online.”

That may be one of the many reasons why accurate data on the number of people who fall prey to online romance scams are difficult to come by.

But what information does exist certainly gives a sense of the scope of the problem.

Last spring, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center reported that it had received 4,476 complaints related to romance scams in 2012 with combined losses of nearly $56 million, which breaks down to an average of roughly $12,500 per victim.

Nearly half of those complaints (46 percent) were filed by people 50 years of age and up, according to “Internet Crime Report 2012,” and women outnumbered men, 57 percent to 43 percent.

“These individuals seduce victims with small gifts, poetry, claims of common interest or the promise of constant companionship,” the report says. “Once the scammers gain the trust of their victims, they request money, ask victims to receive packages and reship them overseas or seek other favors.”

The FBI isn’t the only governmental agency to warn the public about online romance scams. For the past few years, the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command has issued warnings about scam artists impersonating American soldiers – especially those stationed overseas or in combat zones – to spark romantic relationships online.

Once a sense of trust is established, scammers then dupe them into sending thousands of dollars under the guise of needing the money for travel or to purchase laptop computers, international telephones or other devices to enhance their romantic relationship.

“We cannot stress enough that people need to stop sending money to persons they meet on the Internet and claim to be in the U.S. military,” CID spokesman Chris Grey said in a news release last year. “It is heartbreaking to hear these stories over and over again of people who have sent thousands of dollars to someone they have never met and sometimes have never even spoken to on the phone.”

In order to help protect yourself from online romance scams, the FBI has compiled a list of signs that may suggest your new love is more interested in your money than in establishing a romantic relationship:

“Try to stay local, at least within the U.S. or even in your commuting area,” the BBB’s Quillen says. “Otherwise, you are going to run the risk that the person on the other end is not who you think they are.”

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3847 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 1-800-678-1508.

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