With love in the air on Valentine’s Day, the FBI is warning that if an online courtship seems too good to be true, it just might be.
Citing an incident when a woman in her 50s was bilked out of $2 million, the FBI issued an alert on Thursday regarding romance scams, which is an Internet crime that is on the rise.
The FBI said that “victims - predominantly older, widowed or divorced women targeted by criminal groups usually from Nigeria - are, for the most part, computer literate and educated. But they are also emotionally vulnerable. And con artists know exactly how to exploit that vulnerability because potential victims freely post details about their lives and personalities on dating and social media sites.”
FBI Special Agent Christine Beining, a financial fraud investigator, said that trolling for victims on the Internet “is like throwing a fishing line.”
“The Internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anybody you want to be. You can be anywhere in the world and victimize people,” she said. “The perpetrators will reach out to a lot of people on various networking sites to find somebody who may be a good target. Then they use what the victims have on their profile pages and try to work those relationships and see which ones develop.”
According to Beining, this is a standard operating procedure for romance scammers, who assume other people’s identities to trick their victims. “They make themselves out to be average-looking people,” she said. “They are generally not trying to build themselves up too high.”
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center said that romance scams - also referred to as confidence fraud - results in the highest amount of financial losses to victims in comparison to other scams orchestrated online. In 2016, the FBI said that nearly 15,000 romance scam complaints were received, with losses totaling more than $230 million.
Romance scammers often say they are in the building and construction industry and are engaged in projects outside the country, the FBI noted.
“That makes it easier to avoid meeting in person—and more plausible when they ask their victims for help. They will suddenly need money for a medical emergency or unexpected legal fee. “They promise to repay the loan immediately,” Beining said, “but the victims never get their money back.”
“This is a very difficult crime to prove,” Beining added. “When someone is using a computer to hide behind, the hardest thing to find out is who they are. We can find out where in the world their computer is being used. It’s identifying who they actually are that’s the hard part. That is why this individual remains a fugitive.”
To avoid becoming the victim of a romance scam, the FBI has laid out several tips for area residents:
- Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere;
- Go slow and ask lots of questions;
- Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or Facebook to go “offline;”
- Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you;
- Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious;
- Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally. “If you don’t know them, don’t send money,” Beining said. “You will see what their true intentions are after that.”
“Behind the veil of romance, it’s a criminal enterprise like any other," Beining said.. “And once a victim becomes a victim, in that they send money, they will often be placed on what’s called a ‘sucker list,’ ” she said. “Their names and identities are shared with other criminals, and they may be targeted in the future.”
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