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'Sweetheart Swindles' Prey On Singles Looking For Valentines, 'One True Love'

2/6/2012

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Consumer Fraud Task Force LogoSt. Louis, Mo., Feb. 6, 2012 – More people are turning to the Internet to find Mr. or Ms. Right through online dating services, pop-up ads or email. The Consumer Fraud Task Force has a warning for those who use the Internet to find love: While online dating has resulted in some successful relationships, criminals also troll the sites for victims who will send them money.

Task Force partners get thousands of complaints every year from people who have lost money to someone they met on dating sites. Some criminals say they’re in the military and stationed overseas. Others may claim to have a sudden emergency, such as medical bills for a sick relative, or they claim they’re in need of cash because they’re stranded or behind on their bills. Often the ‘emergency’ occurs after weeks or months of online chit-chat, often filled with flattery that makes the victim feel as if he or she has found true love.

A woman in Washington state got a 46-month prison term for swindling an elderly doctor out of $2.2 million by faking an online romantic relationship over several years ending in 2010. A study in the United Kingdom found that more than 200,000 people in Britain had been conned by scammers posing as potential romantic partners online, with victims losing up to £240,000, the equivalent of about $379,600.

A lawsuit filed in Dallas in December 2010 claimed that more than half the profiles on a leading dating site were “inactive, fake or fraudulent.” In some cases, the profiles link to scammers in other countries, often in Africa or Eastern Europe. For that reason, it can be difficult for law enforcement or other agencies to make arrests or recover victims’ money.

The Task Force urges anyone who uses an online dating service or answers an unsolicited romantic email to be extremely cautious before committing to meet the person or send them money, tickets or anything else of value.

Some tips and red flags to watch for include:                           

  • Find out whether the dating service does any background checks or fraud scans before a person’s profile is posted.
  • Be cautious if the person claims to be recently widowed or says they’re an American stationed overseas, possibly in the military.
  • Be cautious if the person immediately asks you to communicate on an email or messaging system outside the dating site. Some dating sites monitor exchanges for signs of fraud, and a fraudster may be anxious to lure you away from the site.
  • Do a Google search on the person. You can even paste the text of the email, profile description, or pictures into Google and search to see if similar text, pictures or descriptions are used by others. Some criminals create multiple profiles and use the same information over and over.
  • Be suspicious if the person hints that they are in financial trouble or have another sudden need for money. If the person asks you to wire money—such as by Western Union, MoneyGram or Green Dot MoneyPak—it more than likely is a scam.
  • Check the person’s name in online databases of sex offenders, which are available in many states. 
  • If you decide to meet the person, go to a place where there are large numbers of people and where you feel safe. Consider taking someone along with you.
The Task Force is a coalition of local, state and federal government agencies and nonprofit business and consumer groups in Missouri and Illinois that work together to protect consumer and donor rights and guard against fraud. Previous Task Force releases have focused on payday loans, tax scams, timeshare resellers, home remodelers, work-at-home scams, sweepstakes offers, online auctions, credit repair scams, debt management advice, foreclosure scams, extended auto service contracts and fire and police organizations.

To obtain information, or if you think you may be the victim of a scam, you may contact members of the Task Force:

Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois – (314) 645-3300; www.bbb.org.
Federal Trade Commission – (877) FTC-HELP (382-4357); www.ftc.gov.
Illinois Attorney General – (800) 243-0618; www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov.
Missouri Attorney General – (800) 392-8222; www.ago.mo.gov.
U.S.  Attorney, Eastern District of Missouri – (314) 539-2200; www.usdoj.gov/usao/moe.
U.S. Postal Inspection Service – (877) 876-2455; postalinspectors.uspis.gov.
U.S.  Secret Service – (314) 539-2238; www.secretservice.gov.

Other Task Force members include:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois
  • Missouri Secretary of State, Securities Division
  • Illinois State Treasurer’s Office
  • Better Business Bureau in Greater Kansas City
  • Better Business Bureau in Southwest Missouri
  • Legal Services of Eastern Missouri
  • Legal Services of Southern Missouri
  • Legal Services of Western Missouri
  • Mid-Missouri Legal Services
  • Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation
Contacts: Michelle Corey, President & CEO, 314-584-6800, mcorey@stlouisbbb.org, or Chris Thetford, Vice President-Communications, 314-584-6743 or 314-681-4719 (cell), communications@stlouisbbb.org
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