Dating and romance fraud is more rampant than ever.
The dating and romance scams involve financial fraud and recruiting so-called “money mules,” the FBI said in a public service announcement this week.
It all starts when a bad actor dupes a victim into a trusting relationship, then exploits that to get money, goods, or sensitive financial information.
The bad guys often use online dating sites to pose as U.S. citizens abroad or U.S. military members deployed overseas or American business owners who have sizeable investments, the FBI said.
The stats back up the growing threat. While in 2017 more than 15,000 people filed complaints with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) saying they were victims of confidence/romance fraud with reported losses of $211 million, in 2018, the number of victims jumped to more than 18,000, with more than $362 million in losses, an increase of more than 70 percent over the previous year, according to the FBI.
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How one scammer stole over a $1.7 million from victims
In 2018, the Better Business Bureau profiled a case where a scammer stole $1 million in laptops and other stolen electronic gear as well as money totaling at least $730,000.
A Nigerian citizen, who ran his scam from South Africa, posted fake profiles on dating sites using photos of actual people. He claimed, in some cases, to be an officer in the U.S. armed forces, to be widowed with one child, and “to be a practicing Christian with a strong Faith,” the BBB said.
The man “spent weeks or months developing relationships with his victims, often sending gifts such as flowers or chocolates, and then asked for small sums of money for supposed minor emergencies to test his influence on them,” the BBB said.
One victim ended up filing for bankruptcy after she was left $98,000 in debt.
He also used blackmail, having one victim perform “in a sexually explicit manner” on Skype, which he secretly recorded. When she refused to send more money, he threatened to post the video online, the BBB said.
He also used victims as mules. He would order laptops and iPads with stolen credit cards and then got the victims to send the merchandise to him in South Africa.
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Most cyber criminals do not use their own photos, the FBI said. “A reverse image search can determine if a profile picture is being used elsewhere on the internet, and on which websites it was used. A search sometimes provides information that links the image with other scams or victims,” the FBI said.
And remember that most dating sites do not conduct criminal background checks, so it is easy for people to misrepresent themselves.
Other red flags include immediate requests to talk or chat on email or a messaging service outside of the dating site and phony claims that meeting the person was “destiny” or “fate,” the FBI said.
Report the activity to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, your local FBI field office, or both. Contact IC3 at www.ic3.gov.