Over half of all Americans participated in Valentine’s Day and spent an estimated $20 million to mark the holiday in 2016. That money is spent primarily on significant others but also on children, parents, co-workers and even pets. Better Business Bureau® serving Central Oklahoma warns consumers to be wary of scammers who may attempt to make it on your list of gift recipients via a romance scam.
“While the season is full of romance and building a relationship with a special someone, don't let your emotions or nostalgia cause you to let your guard down,” said Kitt Letcher, president and CEO of BBB. “We encourage people to safeguard your financials just like they would any other time of year.”
In 2015 the FBI reported a loss of more than $203 million by 12,509 self-reported victims. The amount of romance scams, also known as confidence fraud, reported in 2015 more than doubled from the previous year. While the number of victims affected is not overwhelming, the amount of money lost is the second highest grossing type of crime. The FBI also believes these figures are just the tip of the iceberg as they estimate only 10% of victims file a report through the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). It seems scammers aren't only satisfied with stealing money they've also begun to involve unsuspecting targets in their crime.
How the Scam Works:
Most romance scams start with fake profiles on online dating sites, created by stealing photos and text from real accounts or elsewhere. Scammers often claim to be in the military or working overseas to explain why they can’t meet in person. Over a short period, the scammer builds a fake relationship with their target, exchanging photos, romantic messages, evening talking on the phone or through a webcam.
But just when the relationship seems to be getting serious, the new sweetheart has a problem: a health issue or family emergency, or wants to plan a visit. No matter the story, the request is the same: they need money. But after the victim sends money, there’s another request, and then another. Or the scammer stops communicating altogether.
BBB shares these tips for guarding against romance scams:
- Protect your identity and your wallet. The most important tip, never send money or any personal information to someone you’ve never met in person. Visiting with someone via video message doesn’t mean they’re not a scammer. Also, be cautious not reveal any personal information or do anything you may regret later when using video messaging. Some scammer use software to record video calls and then use it to extort money from victims.
- Think before going from public to private. Be hesitant if the conversation moves from a monitored site like social media or a dating site to a more private form of communication like email or instant messaging. This strategy might be a way for the scammer to draw you in without other people interfering.
- Do your research. Pour over the profile image and description and if it sounds too good to be true check it out. You can copy portions of their biography and enter it in your favorite search engine. Often scammers will use the same details across multiple sites to trick multiple people at once, only changing the name occasionally. Scammers often reuse profile pictures similarly. Reverse image search is one way to use their profile picture to assure they aren’t duping you.
- Ask for details and get specific. Request further forms of identification like a photo of them holding their username. Ask them specific questions about the details given in their profile. Often the text is recycled, and they don't know any specific details about the places they claim to have been or the things they pretend to enjoy. If they say they are a military member, ask for their official military email address as they all end with @mail.mil. Scammers will likely make excuses for why they can’t provide you with one.
- Pay attention to how they communicate. Pay attention to bad grammar and misspelled words. True, plenty of people make mistakes when they’re communicating quickly but, if mistakes are often repeated, it may point to an accent or show they aren’t from where they claim. Also, be on guard if they begin using pet names or discussing marriage too soon.
What should you do if you suspect you might be the victim of a scam?
- File a report with your BBB’s Scam Tracker ℠, an online portal to report scams and fraud, and to warn others of malicious or suspicious activities
- In the event you suffered a monetary loss your local police department and, if applicable, an internet crime report with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
Many romance scams never get reported because of the victim’s embarrassment but it is important to remember that these scammers have been doing this con for many years and over time, they have gotten very good at their trade.
You can find more tips at bbb.org/valentine and bbb.org/romancescam. If you’ve been affected by a scam, make sure to report it to BBB Scam Tracker ℠ to help warn others.