Although Valentine’s Day candy is gone from store shelves, romance – and the scams that go with it – goes on year-round.
Last year, people reported losing $143 million to romance-related scams – more than any other type of scam reported to the Federal Trade Commission. The median loss is $2,600. Those ages 70 and older reported a median loss of $10,000. Some individuals reported losing $100,000 or more.
Victims aren’t just losing their life savings. Some are taking on new debt in the name of love – home equity loans, new credit cards and even payday loans to solve somebody else’s crisis, medical emergency or business trouble.
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“It’s amazing how deeply they get into your head and your heart with Facebook messages,” said Eric Larson, 54, who lives in northern Montana and was caught in a romance scam for much of last year.
It started when a woman sent him a friend request on Facebook in January 2018. He didn’t know her, but she was nice. She showed pictures of herself dressed up when she was going to church.
Larson, who had divorced after a 20-year marriage, was home after sustaining an injury at work and dealing with other medical issues.
“We exchanged selfies of each other,” he said. “She was interested in me and my life and made me feel likable and lovable and interesting.”
After two and a half months, she broke her cellphone, needed a new one and, because she was a student, asked him to buy it for her.
That was how he lost the first $1,000. He sent that money via Western Union to another person who supposedly was able to get her the money.
More stories – a father who was murdered, her legal battle for a $28 million inheritance, a need to keep things off the radar because her father’s old business had ties to organized crime – drove up his total losses to about $31,000.
About half of that money came from savings and the money he was earning when he went back to work. He had to borrow the rest on credit cards, payday loans and the like.
“I didn’t tell anybody what was going on,” Larson said.
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He’s willing to talk now because he wants to help someone else avoid getting trapped.
“I know I’m not the only divorced, middle-aged man that’s lonely and wants someone to talk to,” Larson said.
Over roughly eight months, he put money on Steam gift cards supposedly to help her cover her cellphone bills. They only talked a few times but she accessed Facebook via the cellphone.
He helped with legal bills for that inheritance. He bought “lots and lots and lots of Amazon cards – $100 each.”
He’d take pictures of the gift cards, send her the numbers on them and she had quick access to the cash. He didn’t even have to mail the cards.
He was flat broke at one point but somehow she persuaded him to apply for a Target credit card. And the same day, he maxed it out to buy gift cards for her.
At another point, she wanted him to open a bank account for her. When he said he didn’t have money to do that, she asked him for his online banking information so she could wire money to cover that cellphone to his account.
He asked her to send a check. She insisted on sending it directly to his bank. He gave her online bank information.
She directly deposited a fake check and ultimately he ended up with a $2,000 overdraft.
When he started suspecting something, he asked her to send him another selfie.
“And she sent me a picture of a different woman,” he said.
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He soon crafted his own story where he pretended to have major surgery ahead. Then, perhaps, when he stopped responding, she would think he was dead.
After talking with an FBI agent, he realizes that “she” might have even been a “he” or a group of men overseas scamming Americans out of their money.
While he probably won’t get any money back, he wants more oversight by banks and retailers to help stop people from making horrible mistakes. If someone’s judgment is clouded, he said, there should be even more hurdles when it comes to wiring money or buying a string of gift cards.
The pitches made by sweet-talking scammers tend to be similar. One huge red flag: The new love of your life somehow can never see you. He or she is stationed abroad or travels frequently.
The scammer texts or sends emails to better control the message. One tip: Take time to paste the text into a search engine and see whether the same words show up on websites devoted to exposing romance scams, AARP suggests.
Scammers might do research about you online, too. But they often tap into the same old cliches to describe themselves: They’re a simple person who likes walks on the beach. They’ll talk of finding “true love.”
And they’ve always got a reason for you to feel sorry for them. One con artist told his victim that he lost his wife years ago, for example, and mourned her by working and working. Now, he’s ready to move on –– once he finishes this last, big job overseas.
We’re doing more things online so scammers have all sorts of opportunities to target their victims. A scammer could be targeting 25 people or more at once, said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs for the AARP.
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More than half of adults in the United States have used the internet to find new friends, dates and romantic partners, according to an AARP national survey.
About 27 percent of those surveyed said they or someone they know have encountered a relationship scam online, according to the AARP survey. About 11 percent report being victimized.
If you suspect being targeted by a fraudster – or your relative or friend is – you can call the AARP helpline to talk to a trained volunteer at 877-908-3360 and select option 2.
Once they persuade you that you’re in love – maybe promising to visit you by Christmas – they find a reason to ask for money.
Most of us would dump a guy or gal within seconds if they asked for $500 after a few dates. But somehow the online universe is different.
“Once they have you, they have you,” Stokes said. “They’ve found a way to get you out of your logical thought process.”
A new Better Business Bureau report indicated that some online romance scams can escalate beyond gift-cards, too. Some victims turn into unwitting accomplices as “money mules,” acting as middlemen in a variety of scams.
“If the victim doesn’t have the money, the scammer often asks them to send a package from a friend,” said Laura Blankenship, director of marketing for the Better Business Bureau for Eastern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
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Criminals operating primarily from Eastern European countries and Nigeria may buy computers and other electronics via the internet using stolen credit cards.
They then have the goods shipped to addresses in the United States of “reshippers.”
The victim might be asked to repackage the merchandise and mail it elsewhere, according to an alert by the United States Postal Service.
“These scammers prey on the emotions of those looking for love and companionship,” Blankenship said.
Victims tell shocking stories of how falling in love was a 24-hour whirlwind.
Yet the love connection might repeatedly promise to meet you in person but always comes up with an excuse to cancel, according to the AARP tip sheet.
Many times, scammers create profiles online using other people’s pictures.
Consumers can use a reverse image search on Google to see if the photo was used online publicly elsewhere, Stokes said.
Sometimes, they may even use a photo of someone in the military. Never send money to someone claiming to be a U.S. soldier.
Larson said someone who is lonely can be a prime target but the one thing he realized is that you should never send money, ever, to someone you meet online.
“I wouldn’t have sent a dime,” he said, when asked what he would do differently now.
Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.