LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) – The Better Business Bureau is warning everyone to be aware of Sweetheart Scams.
With Valentine’s Day comes a surge of activity on dating websites, with singles looking to the internet for a love connection. Unfortunately, these sites are rife with fraudsters who use affection to manipulate their victims out of their money. Worse, a new Better Business Bureau (BBB) report finds, online romance scams often escalate as scammers turn their victims into unwitting accomplices to fraud, known as“money mules.”
It’s a phenomenon previously addressed by Attorney General Andy Beshear.
Victims of those scams reported losses of nearly $300,000 this year. In each case, a “sweetheart scammer” used legitimate online dating websites to lure victims into a fake online relationship. The scammer then took advantage of the victim’s emotions by duping them into sending thousands of dollars to supposedly help them get out of various types of legal or financial trouble.
Attorney General Beshear said one victim lost more than $12,000 in a sweetheart scam, and even purchased a wedding dress for a supposed February 2019 wedding date.
In February 2018, BBB issued an in-depth investigative study on romance scams, describing how fraudsters target people who are looking for romance. BBB’s follow-up study – “Fall in Love – Go to Jail: A BBB Report on How Romance Fraud Victims Become Money Mules” – describes how fraudsters then exploit that relationship further. It digs into the scope of the problem, who is behind it, and the need for law enforcement and consumer education to address the issue. Read the complete report here.
As detailed in the original study, romance scammers typically contact their victims through dating websites, apps or social media, often using fake profiles and even stolen credit card information. Using these false identities, scammers may spend months grooming their victims, building what the victim believes to be a loving relationship, before asking for money to handle an emergency or travel expenses.
The financial damage inflicted by these scams, which is often accompanied by far greater emotional harm, is often just the tip of the iceberg. According to the new BBB report, 20 to 30 percent of romance scam victims were used as “money mules” in 2018 alone, with these victims numbering in the thousands.
According to the new BBB report, cybersecurity experts have traced the bulk of online romance scams to Nigeria, though Nigerian nationals operating these frauds are based in several countries around the world, including the U.S. The same groups involved in romance scams frequently operate other frauds on a worldwide scale. One expert reports that at any given time, there may be more than 25,000 scammers online with victims.
The report recommends:
- It is important to warn people about romance frauds before they get invested in an online relationship. Alert them that the loss of their money is not the end of the matter because fraudsters may try to enlist them as money mules. It also is important to exercise caution in one’s own online dating ventures in order to avoid falling for a romance fraud at the outset.
- Romance fraud victims often need counseling to help them overcome the trauma of this fraud. More victim support groups like those in Los Angeles and Ventura, California, would be helpful.
- More warnings to money mules may help alert romance fraud victims that they are engaged in assisting frauds and encourage them to stop.
- More prosecutions of romance fraudsters would help deter romance fraud.
- Change existing restrictions to let banks share information with law enforcement, regulators and other financial institutions about possible money mule accounts.
- Increase cooperation and sharing of information between law enforcement officials in different jurisdictions working on the same cases.
- More training and cooperation is needed internationally to recognize and combat romance fraud.
What to do if you are the victim of a romance scam:
- Complain to bbb.org
- Report the fraud to bbb.org/scamtracker
- Report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or call 877-FTC-Help
- Report it to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3
- Report it to the Senate Aging Committee Fraud Hotline at 1-855-303-9470 or through its website.
- Victims who have sent money through Western Union should complain directly to them at 1-800-448-1492.
- Victims who have sent money through MoneyGram should notify them directly at 1-800-926-9400.