Cupid has some competition this Valentine’s Day: Scammers are taking aim at your heart and pocketbook with scams that can lead to identity theft and more.
Beware of these five sweetheart swindles and follow our expert tips to protect yourself:
Infected e-cards. Online greeting cards are an easy way for scammers to infect your computer with malware that gives them remote access to your files, online banking accounts and passwords. Or it can enlist your computer as a spam-sending “botnet.”
Tip: Don’t click on embedded links from incoming e-cards, especially when they’re from an unnamed friend or secret admirer. Steer clear of names you don’t recognize and senders like firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if you recognize the sender’s name, go to the card company's website to open the card and read it. Legitimate e-cards provide a notification message with a confirmation code that lets recipients open cards at those sites.
Google gotchas. Many gift-giving sweethearts begin their online shopping on search engines such as Google or Yahoo instead of a specific retailer website. Scammers take advantage by creating bogus websites. Posing as legitimate vendors, they sell counterfeit goods or nothing at all while collecting customers’ credit card information that can be fraudulently used.
Tip: You’re safer shopping for a sweethear's gift from a reputable retailer’s website. Type the address instead of relying on keyword searches via search engines. Some bogus websites found on search engines look like the real McCoy, but are merely well-designed copycats.
Facebook fiends. Beware of poems, love letters, quizzes or other messages on social media websites purported to come from friends. They may be scammer-sent ruses that get you to download malware or make purchases on unsafe websites. Also beware of Valentine’s Day’s teasers or apps that lead you to survey websites that generate commissions for scammers or, depending on the information provided, put you at risk for identity theft.
Tip: Think twice before opening Facebook messages with generic greetings such as "Valentine's Day" and "Special Greeting.” Even if you know the sender, realize the message may not be from him or her. Some rogue apps are instantly spread to others after being opened or posted on a Facebook wall. Also don’t believe claims such as last year’s "Facebook anti-spam dialog box," a ruse that has led users to a dubious survey.
Sale-related spam. Expect an in-box littered with offers for deals on chocolates, jewelry, roses and other Valentine’s-themed trinkets. But be skeptical unless the offer is from a company you’ve done business with—and that already has your contact information. Links within such emails can also unleash malware or lead you to scammer-run copycat websites.
Tip: Carefully read the address. For example, look for “www.tiffany.com” vs. “www.tiffanyco.mn” (suggesting a Mongolia-based website). Try this neat trick: Without clicking, point your mouse to hover over the link to see its full address. Copy and paste (again, without clicking) that link into a Microsoft Word document. By right-clicking on the pasted link and selecting "Edit Hyperlink" from the menu that appears, a pop-up window should appear that shows the web address to which the link directs in the "Address" field.
Romance ruses. The most despicable sweetheart swindle of all costs the typical victim more than $10,000—and has caused enough shame and heartache to prompt some to commit suicide. These scams go like this: Smooth-writing Romeos, often part of overseas organized crime rings, scroll dating websites and chat rooms. Stealing photos from legitimate modeling websites, they invent fake identities tailored to their victims’ interests. (You mention you love dogs, they claim to be a running an overseas animal rescue.) After weeks or months of online wooing comes the inevitable request: They either ask for money via a wire transfer for some emergency—or a plane ticket to meet you. Or they send you checks for you to cash and forward back, but wha's sent is usually counterfeit, leaving you liable for forwarded funds and possible arrest for check fraud.
Tip: Before giving away your heart and money, investigate your new sweetie at www.romancescams.org. If his or her photo is posted, know i's a scammer who stole that picture. Signs you’re headed for a rip-off: Your new cyber companion is too quick with declarations of love; writes with “Scammer Grammar,” which is inconsistent with the typically assumed identities of educated businessmen or military officers; and claims a hard-luck or feel-good personal story, such as working for an animal rescue or orphanage.
Victor Searcy is director of fraud operations at IDentity Theft 911.