Romance scams run the spectrum from simply toying with people’s emotions to stealing their money. In some dire cases, it has even landed victims in jail for their part in a crime. How do these online scams come about?
Here’s a scenario that victims fall for hook, line and sinker:
A woman checks her Facebook messages and finds one from a stranger. When she responds to ask how they know each other, he lists some ambiguous connection from her friends’ list. From his profile picture, he looks like a happy, outgoing person, so they begin to communicate regularly.
They talk about their interests, their families, and jobs. He already knows that she works in insurance from her profile, and he mentions that he works on an off-shore oil rig. Over a very brief period of time, the messages become frequent and they exchange phone numbers so they can text. They can’t talk, though, since phone reception is spotty on the oil rig. Quickly, the conversations turn to his feelings for her, how he’s never met anyone like her, and finally, their lifelong plans together.
But then tragedy strikes. The man’s mother is ill and he can’t send her money for medicine because the bank has frozen his account. After the woman helps out—after all, this is her future mother-in-law—then it’s his mother’s power bill. Then he wants to come see her in person (finally!) but the company he worked for is suddenly charging its employees for the boat back to the mainland. After she pays for that boat, he books a flight but didn’t know he had to pay for a visa to enter the U.S., and he’s being detained at the airport while he waits for that visa.
Once the story has played out, the scammer is done with his victim. He stops communicating altogether and moves on to the next lonely heart, leaving the woman to wonder if her boyfriend is okay, if she’s done something wrong, or worse, if she has been the victim of a scam.
Here are some tips to avoid becoming a victim of a romance scam.
- Don’t accept friend requests from people you have no connection to, and remember that profiles are incredibly easy to fake.
- If someone contacts you and you feel like responding, just keep things at arm’s length until you’ve had a chance to check them out through your connections.
- If you do strike up a wonderful online relationship with someone, just be aware of the red flags like out-of-town jobs, escalating the relationship far too quickly, and requests for money for bizarre circumstances.
Avoid these pitfalls, and you’ll be far less likely to waste your time and your money on a scammer instead of the real deal.
Eva Velasquez is president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, which is sponsored by CyberScout.