Experts warn of online romance scams for Valentine’s Day

Fans of Netflix’s “Tinder Swindler” may know how romance scams work online, but the experts warn that many of America’s loneliest hearts could still fall for fraud on Valentine’s Day.

The FBI says the scammers typically adopt a fake identity with someone else’s photos on social media apps or dating websites, build trust with flattery of lonely singles — especially seniors — and then steal their financial information or hit them up for requests for money, gifts and bogus investments.

“When starting a relationship online, proceed carefully and be aware of warning signs like requests for money or personal and financial information,” the FBI said Thursday in a statement emailed to The Washington Times.

In 2021, 24,000 victims of Cupid scammers reported to law enforcement that they lost about $1 billion in hoaxes. That’s up from the $281 million that victims reported losing in 2020, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Since romance scams are “intensely personal,” the FBI said, many victims do not report them because they may feel embarrassed.

Therese Schachner, a cybersecurity consultant for the St. Louis-based internet safety resource VPNBrains, said it’s important not to click on photos from a suspicious lothario because they could be phishing links that install malware to harvest private information from a victim’s device.

“Scammers may also send phishing links that allegedly lead to online dating sites’ registration pages, encouraging users to sign up for these sites to find their match for Valentine’s Day,” Ms. Schachner said. “However, these links may request users’ personal information and send it to scammers once users submit this information, putting them at risk of identity theft and other malicious uses of their data.”

Ms. Schachner said one big warning sign of romance scams, which often come from hackers in foreign countries who look nothing like the photos in their profiles, is “frequent excuses to avoid video calls or in-person meetups.”

By that point, she said, many scammers have already pre-selected and studied their victims online in a carefully targeted exercise of “social engineering.”

“Scammers often research victims’ social media profiles and other online information about them to discover what might motivate them to click on certain links or reveal private information,” Ms. Schachner said.

Mayank Gupta, co-founder and CEO of the website that helps romance scam victims file their complaints in small claims court, said victims can also turn the tables on their scammers by researching the predators.

“The more information you have about the name and address of a defendant, the higher your likelihood is going to be of success in any legal proceeding,” Mr. Gupta said. “If you know the true identity of the person that scammed you, that is going to go a long way in helping you recover your losses, if a judge does rule in your favor.”

Most scammers never face criminal charges, he said, leaving victims to try to recover their money through the small claims system.

“It’s unfortunate that scammers prey on anyone, but especially in these vulnerable, innocent situations, where the victim is simply looking for a relationship, to build a friendship and possibly more,” Mr. Gupta said. “You’re emotionally vulnerable and scammers know it. It’s all the more reason to be alert.”

As of Friday, the Better Business Bureau’s Online Scam Tracker showed that 33 romance scams have been reported in the U.S. since Jan. 1. The most recent report came on Tuesday.

In a 2018 study on romance scams, the BBB found that they run longer and cause greater personal harm than ordinary financial hustles.

“They prey on lonely people looking to connect with someone, and can often take months to develop to the point where money changes hands,” the BBB said in the report. “The emotional harm to the victim can be even more painful than the monetary loss.”

Often the victims invest so much emotionally in the illusion of a stranger being attracted to them that they choose the perception over reality. But many Cupid scammers exploit several victims at the same time, shattering any fantasy of exclusivity.

Netflix’s “Tinder Swindler” docudrama tells the story of Shimon Hayut, a convicted fraudster born in Israel who used dating apps to establish lines of credit and loans in the names of multiple women. Those women then received the bills for his lavish lifestyle without realizing he was bilking several of them.

And “Dirty John,” a viral true-crime podcast series produced by Wordery and the Los Angeles Times, shows the twisted depths to which manipulative romance scams go — including murder.

But experts say Cupid schemes are easily avoided if the people stay wary about strangers they meet online.

According to the FBI, other warning signs of romance scams include: immediate attempts to communicate by email or messaging outside of a dating site, claims to be a U.S. citizen living abroad, comments about “destiny” or “fate,” requests to help with sudden financial crises, name changes, and requests for money or goods without meeting in person.

The FBI said potential victims can best defend themselves by never sending money electronically, revealing credit or banking information, or giving their social security numbers to people they meet online. They can also limit what they share, ask lots of questions and research the person’s profile online.

While the schemes affect victims from all demographics, the FBI reports that elderly women are often targeted the most.

In addition to reporting romance scams to law enforcement, the agency said victims should also contact their banks about any suspicious transactions and warn the social media app or website where they encountered the person.


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