At the Identity Theft Resource Center, we’re seeing an increase in in both frequency and severity of the sweetheart scam. Such scams happen when a criminal poses as a suitor who is romantically interested in the victim. As the online relationship progresses, the swindler begins to financially exploit the victim. In the past, criminals used personal ads and, with the invention of the Internet, email. Now, social networking and online dating sites are the platforms du jour.
Online dating can be a great way to find people who have common interests and whom you might otherwise never meet in your daily activities, but there are hidden dangers as well. Take a recent case in which the victim became so engrossed in the online relationship that she cut off all communication with family members who tried to investigate the situation. The victim met the criminal online when he used a fake profile and identity to friend her on Facebook. The scammer chose a high-level official to impersonate – someone found easily online with a simple Google search. That way, when the victim did her own background check, she believed she was confirming facts, when in reality she was confirming facts the scammer had pilfered from other public information and profiles. While each scam will have its own unique twist, many have this setup in common.
Social networking not only gives the criminals anonymity, but allows them to contact many people at once. In addition, social networks offer up a panoply of information about an individual’s interests, job, family, history, hobbies and more. These tidbits of information are a gold mine for crooks who are trying to position themselves as someone’s “dream come true”. The criminal may mention, in an offhand manner, how much he loves classical music and dreams of going to Hawaii. The victim is stunned because she loves classical music and dreams of going to Hawaii also! How could the crook know these things if it wasn’t meant to be? Well, the bad guy knows because all of the victim’s musical “likes” for classical composers and status update about dreaming of a trip to Hawaii.
Too Much in Common
All of these coincidences are by calculated design. Speaking of being calculating, shortly after we began assisting the family of the victim mentioned above, we received frantic communication that the criminal had informed the victim that he was flying to meet her and stay with her in her home. This was alarming to the family and brought forth the idea that this may be more than a simple sweetheart scammer, seeing as there was no way the scammer could show up and meet the victim without the victim realizing he wasn’t who he said he was. Our first question was who had purchased the plane ticket. Once we learned that the victim had, we surmised that the crook would probably cancel at the last minute and pocket the funds sent by the victim. Indeed, hours after the flight was supposed to land, there was an email from the criminal to the victim explaining that something had gone horribly wrong and he hadn’t made the flight.
This is typical of this kind of scam. Eventually these scams end when the victim runs out of available funds, or grows suspicious, and the scammer simply stops communication and moves on. The victim is left not only with broken finances, but very often a broken heart as well.
If it ended there, victims could more easily move on and heal. Often, victims can find themselves paying the price for the rest of their lives if they have provided certain personal information, such as a Social Security number, to the criminal. You may wonder though how to avoid becoming the victim of a sweetheart scam when crooks are out there and so good at their craft.
How to Protect Yourself
There are a few very simple tips to help you avoid being taken advantage of by a sweetheart scammer. If someone seems too good to be true based on how they are portraying themselves online, they probably are. Be wary of those who sound like your “soulmate” as they may be more after your checkbook than your heart. Never give personal information to someone you meet online until you can verify that they are who they say they are. Even then, there really is no reason someone you are dating should know your Social Security number or bank account information. There is also no reason you should send money to anyone you meet online. While you may scoff at this last tip, you would be surprised how crafty scammers can be.
They say all is fair in love and war, but that is not true. The way that these scammers toy with the emotions (and purse strings) of victims is very unfair.