Millions of Americans visit online dating websites every year, hoping to find a companion or even a soul mate. On Valentine’s Day, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wants to warn online daters that criminals use these sites, too, looking to turn the lonely and vulnerable into fast money through a variety of scams.
These criminals — who also troll social media sites and chat rooms in search of romantic victims — usually claim to be Americans traveling or working abroad. In reality, they often live overseas. Their most common targets are women over 40 who are divorced, widowed, and/or disabled, but every age group and demographic is at risk.
How the Scam Usually Works
You’re contacted online by someone who appears interested in you. He or she may have a profile you can read or a picture that is e-mailed to you. For weeks, even months, you may chat back and forth with one another, forming a connection. You may even be sent flowers or other gifts, but ultimately it’s going to happen — your new-found "friend" is going to ask you for money.
So you send money, but rest assured the requests won’t stop there. There will be more hardships that only you can help alleviate with your financial gifts. He may also send you checks to cash since he’s out of the country and can’t cash them himself, or he may ask you to forward him a package.
What Really Happened
You were targeted by criminals, probably based on personal information you uploaded on dating or social media sites. The pictures you were sent were most likely phony, lifted from other websites. The profiles were fake as well, carefully crafted to match your interests.
In addition to losing your money to someone who had no intention of ever visiting you, you may also have unknowingly taken part in a money laundering scheme by cashing phony checks and sending the money overseas and by shipping stolen merchandise (the forwarded package).
While the FBI and other federal partners work some of these cases — in particular those with a large number of victims or large dollar losses and/or those involving organized criminal groups — many are investigated by local and state authorities.
If you think you’ve been victimized by a dating scam or any other online scam, file a complaint with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Before forwarding the complaints to the appropriate agencies, IC3 collates and analyzes the data — looking for common threads that could link complaints together and help identify the culprits. Which helps keep everyone safer on the Internet.
Recognizing an Online Dating Scam Artist
Be on the alert for suspicious behavior when you're using an online dating site. Your online "date" may only be interested in your money if he or she:
- Presses you to leave the dating website you met through and to communicate using personal e-mail or instant messaging;
- Professes instant feelings of love;
- Sends you a photograph of himself or herself that looks like something from a glamor magazine;
- Claims to be from the U.S. and is traveling or working overseas;
- Makes plans to visit you but is then unable to do so because of a tragic event; or
- Asks for money for a variety of reasons (travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospitals bills for child or other relative, visas or other official documents, losses from a financial setback or crime victimization).
One way to steer clear of these criminals all together is to stick to online dating websites with nationally-known reputations. Awareness is the best tool for preventing crime, and in this case, even from preventing a broken heart.