It’s not the most common scam on the Space and Treasure coasts.
But federal investigators are concerned about the number of romance scams being reported to their offices here and across the country. And with the proliferation of dating websites and apps, the romance scam is one to which they want to give special attention.
“If you’re online, you could be targeted,” said Federal Bureau of Investigation Agent Christine Beining, who specializes in fraud, particularly romance scams, and is based in Melbourne. “But we believe education is the best prevention. This should be preventable.”
How we’re getting scammed
From Titusville south to Hobe Sound, the more prevalent scams have involved crooks posing as the grandchildren of the victims, law enforcement officers, utility company representatives or the IRS.
All of them bear the same modus operandi: the scammer makes the call and wants to quickly get money from the person on the other end of the phone, whether by threat of arrest or a cut-off of service, or even pretending to be a loved one in need of bail money.
The romance scam, by comparison, is a longer game.
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It differs from the others because it happens online instead of on the phone. The scammers are targeting not just dating apps, but will make the same attempts on social media sites, Beining said.
It might not be the first day you come across the romance scammer online, but they will seek to extract money at some point, experts said. Their goal is to be able to continually ask for money, the FBI said.
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“They will continue the relationship as long as they are still getting money,” Beining said. “All they have to do is stay in touch with their victims and keep romancing them. They find new excuses why they need money.”
The FBI categorizes the romance scam as one of many different types of “confidence” scams. That means the perpetrator deceives a victim into believing they have a trust relationship, whether family, friendly or romantic, the agency said.
With dating applications such as Tinder being the stalking ground for scammers, the companies are taking an active approach to warning users.
“No one, whether they met on Tinder or not, should ever send money to someone they haven’t met in person,” a spokesperson for the company said. “In addition, we encourage our members to report any individual who has requested financial information via our self reporting tool. Those two steps will stop almost every scam in its tracks and help protect the next potential victim.”
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Law enforcement officials said they’ve made some arrests in recent years of bands of criminal groups in west Africa who are perpetuating the romance scams and other types of schemes.
“For example, they could pretend to be white 50-year-old males from England who travel to the U.S.,” Beining said regarding scammers involved in the romance scams.
Similar to other scams, the older population, notably wealthy women, are the targets of the romance scam.
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That’s why Attorney General William P. Barr announced in mid-June the establishment of the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, a joint law enforcement effort that brings together the resources and expertise of several federal agencies and will focus on foreign-based fraud schemes that disproportionately affect American seniors.
“It doesn’t matter where these criminals live,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said. “We’re committed to keeping our elderly citizens safe, whether they’re being targeted door-to-door, over the phone, or online, from thousands of miles away. If you think you may be a victim of elder fraud, or you know someone who is, please let us know.”
Victims in silence
Overall, the Space and Treasure coasts had 19 confidence scams reported to the FBI last year, totaling $136,306 in losses to victims.
That dollar amount has almost been matched this year, the FBI said. Nine victims have reported $134,301 in losses as of mid-June, officials said.
There’s no breakdown for how many of the incidents were romance scams.
Beining said the amounts don’t capture the losses of all the victims afraid to come forward and admit they fell prey to the schemes. Agencies on the Treasure Coast said they’ve noticed the same.
Tips from Tinder
Tinder suggests these precautions for staying safe from romance scams on its website. But the tips are good anywhere you’re online.
1. Never respond to any request to send money, especially overseas or via wire transfer, even if the person claims to be in an emergency.
2. Never give personal information, such as your Social Security number, credit card number or bank information, or your work or home address to people you don’t know or haven’t met in person.
3. Block and report suspicious users to the support team on whatever app you’re using.
“It’s very difficult for them to come (forward),” said Christine Christofek, spokeswoman for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office. “We say ‘Please don’t be embarrassed.’ ”
There’s societal shaming that happens as well, which prevents victims from reaching out for help.
“Outsiders judge the victims as stupid,” Beining said. “We want that stigma to go away. Day in, day out, (the scam artists) invest the time; they engage with the victim to make it seem like a real relationship.”
There’s also some victims who may be confused about whether they’ve actually been the victim of a crime, because they willingly sent the money, Beining said.
But the premise of the confidence scams is the perpetrator acts with deception to build the relationship, which makes it a crime. Even if there’s some doubt, victims should contact law enforcement and let them make the assessment.
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Others may not have been coming forward because they assumed there would be no way to get their money back. But Beining said that the FBI can generally recall wire transfers if they are notified within 48 to 72 hours. As such, it is imperative that victims reach authorities as soon as possible.
That capability hasn’t been widely publicized, she said. But investigators said spreading the word about it could help a victim get their money back.
“We didn’t want the bad guys to know we had this mechanism,” Beining said. “Prior, law enforcement held that information close to the heart. Now we realize we have to get that information out.”
Where To Get Help
If you suspect that you have been scammed, call 911.
There’s also help available from the Seniors vs. Crime program, a state agency that assists older residents with a variety of scams. They can be reached at 800-203-0099
To report scams to the FBI, you can either go to ic3.gov or call (813) 253-1000.
Stancil is a breaking news reporter for TCPalm. Contact Stancil at 321-987-7179 or email@example.com. Twitter: @TCPalmLStancil