There are a lot of boxes to tick off to let a dating site know who you want to get cozy with.
Gay? Hetero? Tall? Short? Left-wing, right-wing, dairy-intolerant, beard-abhorring?
And now, a rising trend: there are more and more suitors looking to tick off a box that would read “mule” if it were that easy to find lovelorn patsies to launder money or run drugs for them. And by “suitors,” I mean romance-scamming crooks, of course.
The FBI’s online crime division – the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) – on Monday issued a warning about the rising number of faux lover-boys and -girls who are turning to online dating sites to run what are known as romance or confidence frauds.
We’ve seen plenty of these scams in past years: FBI numbers show that in 2017, more than 15,000 people filed complaints with the IC3, alleging that they were victims of romance/confidence frauds and reporting losses of more than $211 million. The following year – 2018 – that number skyrocketed by more than 70%: the number of victims filing complaints increased to more than 18,000, and they reported more than $362 million in losses.
Based on the number of victims, this type of fraud was the seventh most commonly reported scam last year. Money-wise, it was the second costliest scam in terms of losses reported by those victims. It’s ensnaring every type of victim, regardless of age, education or income bracket, the FBI says, though the most targeted demographics are the elderly, women, and widows or widowers.
This is how these swindles go: First, the conman or woman gets their victim’s trust. Then, they try to convince them to send money, whether it’s for an airfare to visit, to ostensibly bail them out when they claim to have gotten arrested en route, to prove they can be trusted, to buy a home for the heartthrob they’ve never met, or for any other of an endless litany of sob stories.
It works. It works far too often.
Last year, we saw a romance scam victim who not only sent money to the conman posing as her beau; she also allegedly plotted to kill her own mother for cash to send to him/them/whoever was conning her.
There are scads of similar stories. An example of the rising trend of recruiting mules from dating sites is that of a woman who met somebody on a dating site who convinced her that he was a civil engineer. He promised her a job working at his side. He’d secured a very lucrative contract for a job, he said, but he needed somebody trustworthy to bring it to fruition. Would the love of his life be up for traveling to South America to pick up the contract and carry it to him in London?
She Googled the company, and it checked out. Her “boyfriend” said the company would pay for her airfare. He didn’t ask her for money, so there was no reason for a red flag to go up about being financially gouged.
But when she got there, there was no contract. There was, instead, a suitcase containing what she thought was a thick contract with lots of trade secrets in it. The suitcase was delivered to her hotel. It actually contained three bags of cocaine sewn into the lining. Customs agents found the drugs at the airport, and she wound up spending the next 2.5 years in prison.
The poor woman’s story fits what the FBI is seeing more of: an actor spends a few months building a relationship with a victim, then asks for money or electronics … or to open a bank account under the guise of sending or receiving funds, in the case of recruiting unsuspecting mules.
In other words, the conmen are grooming victims on dating sites or other online venues, working on developing a trust relationship so they can convince their marks to conduct fraudulent activity on their behalf. Then, the accounts are used to launder money from criminal enterprises, whether it’s from stolen credit cards or a large assortment of other crimes. If the financial institution flags the account, it may be closed, in which case the conman either tells the victim to open a new account or turns to the next victim to groom.
Another scenario in recruiting mules: the conman claims to be a European citizen or an American living abroad. After a few months of grooming, they’ll tell the victim about a lucrative business opportunity – like that once-in-a-lifetime contract that turned into a suitcase full of cocaine, for example.
There are investors waving money around, eager to fund the project, but they need a US bank account to receive funds, the story goes. Could the victim please open a bank account or register a limited liability company in their own name? … and then receive and send money from that account to other accounts controlled by the supposed sweetheart?
It’s not a good way to meet a lover, unless your taste runs to fellow inmates.
Protect yourself: Search that sucker’s mug
The FBI has some helpful tips to save yourself from being swindled and/or turned into a mule. One such: most crooks don’t use their own photographs online, instead stealing an image from a social media account and passing it off as their own.
You can sometimes ferret out those hoodwinks by doing a reverse image search. That will show if the photo is being used somewhere else on the internet, and on which websites. Sometimes, you’ll also find pages that have reported scams or victims associated with that image.
How to do a reverse image search on a profile photo:
- Simply right-click on the image and select “Search for image.”
- Or, right-click and select “Save image as” to save the photo to your device. Then using a search engine like Google, choose the small camera icon to upload the saved image into the search engine.
What to do if you already got snookered?
If your internet honey makes off with your money, don’t delay in reporting the crime: that will just give the crooks more time to get at your money and less time for banks to freeze the transfers. The FBI recommends taking these steps immediately:
- In the US, report the activity to the IC3, your local FBI field office, or both. Contact the IC3 at www.ic3.gov. Local FBI field offices can be found online at www.fbi.gov/contact-us/. Alternatively, call the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI.
- If you’re in the UK, you can report the crime to Action Fraud.
- Canadians can turn to the Anti-Fraud Centre.
- Contact your financial institution as soon as you discover any fraudulent or suspicious activity, and tell them to stop or reverse the transactions.
- Ask your bank to contact the financial institution to which the money was sent. They might be able to claw at least some of the money back. Case in point: the North Carolina county that got back at least some of the $2.5m it transferred to crooks posing as a general contractor building a new school. Time is of the essence: act fast to close the window during which the crooks can withdraw the cash or stash it in untraceable accounts.
- Report the activity to the website where you first met the scoundrel.