MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – On this Valentine’s Day, looking for love online could leave you the victim of a growing scam. An online dating scam is spreading across the country, including here in Memphis, and bilking victims out of tens of thousands of dollars.
The scam is sophisticated with many layers of deceit. It convinces victims they broke the law and they could be arrested unless they pay up. It’s becoming such a problem, there is a word for it: sextortion.
In the swipe left, swipe right age of online dating, you may not be chatting with someone looking for love. The person on the other end may instead be looking to scam you out of cash.
“The scam is great. It combines two different things. sex and the fear of disclosure,” says Memphis Attorney Claiborne Ferguson.
Ferguson represents multiple “sextortion” victims. He knows how it works. Scam artists have targeted a dozen of his clients in the past year. It usually targets men on online dating sites. It starts with someone claiming to be a woman of legal age striking up an online chat and eventually sending racy pictures. The person then encourages the victim to do the same.
“They build rapport. They interact, and then there is a critical point where they try to get them to send pictures, conversations, videos that would be embarrassing to the victim if they are released,” said Agent Michael Gavin with the FBI Memphis office.
One man who is too embarrassed to reveal his identity explains what happened next. He goes by the name Rusty. “She said something like ‘are you ready to do something to this 17-year-old body?’ and immediately I said ’17?'”
“It’s always delayed. That’s the key to this. They’ll never tell you the lie about the age until after they have sent you all the naked photos,” said Ferguson.
From there, Ferguson says, there is always a story about how the teen’s parent got a hold of the phone. Then the victim gets a call or text from someone saying he is the teen’s angry father.
“They will look at each potential victim and craft a scenario they think can extract money,” said Gavin.
The fake father often says he will not press charges If the victim sends money. That’s quickly followed by a call from someone pretending to be a police officer.
“He read off like 3 different felony counts and threatened me with up to 25 years,” said “Rusty.”
The scammers are clever. They make it appear like the call is coming from a legitimate police department.
“If they believe they can instill fear of law enforcement, police, prosecution, they are going to do that if it can extract money,” said Gavin.
After the bogus police call, the father in this scam asks the victim to send money via a Green Dot card. That’s a prepaid debit card that allows the scammers to immediately access the cash.
“The key to know if you are being scammed is if they ask for the money via Green Dot,” said Ferguson.
Investigators say victims are so afraid they did something illegal that they often do not report the scam.
“When someone is blackmailing you, you’re the victim. You need to bring it forward to law enforcement,” said Gavin.