In love? Or think you may have met “the one” online?
Hopefully, all the stars are aligned and that’s the case.
But while it may seem like common sense to avoid sending money to people you haven’t met in person, the number of “romance scam” victims is growing.
In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission received 10,263 complaints about possible romance scams that cost victims an estimated $105 million.
On Valentine’s Day, and all year round as millions of people search for love and companionship online, the Better Business Bureau and Western Union have teamed up to promote online safety.
"Romance scams take many forms, but they usually start out with fraudsters quickly expressing feelings of affection,” said Mary Power, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, in a news release.
Scammers create fake profiles to build online relationships, often posting photos of attractive men or women to lure victims. The fraudsters eventually convince people to send money in the name of love, the FTC says.
The FBI notes that 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, the agency says.
Scammers use poetry, flowers, and other gifts to reel in victims, the entire time declaring their "undying love," according to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
These criminals also use stories of severe life circumstances, tragedies, deaths in the family, injuries to themselves, or other hardships to keep their victims concerned and string them along. Scammers also ask victims to send money to help overcome a financial situation they claim to be experiencing. These are all lies intended to take money from unsuspecting victims, the IC3 says.
According to Power, “They may strike immediately, or they may lead their victim on for some time in order to build trust. No matter how much your relationship might seem like the real thing, you should be suspicious if someone you only know online asks you for money or personal information like credit card numbers.”
Dr. Tim McGuinness, who runs a number of websites including one dedicated to romance scams and how to avoid them, told LifeLock that the number of scammers posting fake profiles to dating websites “has been escalating dramatically over the last five years, because of the complete ambivalence of the website operators to do anything about it."
McGuinness is an expert witness in a lawsuit against the dating site Match.com — the world's largest online dating site — which debuted in 1995 and boasts nearly 22 million members today.
McGuinness, who also launched an online dating site in 1995 — Date.com — and had a friend who fell victim to a scam artist on a dating website, is the CEO & publisher of McGuinness Publishing, which runs 4,000 websites.
"The incentive for the business model [of most online dating websites] is to have the most number of profiles on their sites,” McGuinness said.
The $1.5 billion class action lawsuit filed in November against Match.com alleges that the company has broken copyright laws and committed fraud by allowing fake profiles that include photos used without permission, according to an ABC News report.
"Online dating is reaching a point where it is a caustic business. People are being subjected to fraud and identity theft, in my humble opinion," McGuinness said. "It would be easy for the sites to eliminate these scammers — technology easily solves this problem."
The lawyer for a Florida model suing Match.com as part of the $1.5 billion class action lawsuit agrees. The lawsuit says the company could weed out fake profiles if it used photo recognition software and checked the Internet addresses of its users' computers.
Officials at Match.com did not return calls or emails for comment.
An inventory of several popular online dating sites, including Match, found safety tips and privacy policies easily accessible to users. Match.com has partnered with the National Cyber Security Alliance in a "STOP. THINK. CONNECT." campaign to promote online safety and cyber-security awareness.
OkCupid.com, which is owned by Match.com, touts itself as "the best free dating site on Earth." It says it a math-based matching system to help get people dates and that it takes "harassment, spam, and other Terms & Conditions violations very, very seriously," and that if a user reports a spammer, someone at OkCupid "will deal swiftly with the problem."
While Christian Mingle takes precautions to enhance the safety and privacy of its community members, the site warns that "it's ultimately up to you to stay aware and employ common sense both online and offline." It then offers guidelines as you search for "The One."
California-based eHarmony has a 400-question compatibility survey given to its 15 million members, making it one of the “safest sites because it weeds out most scammers,” McGuinness said.
With more and more people looking for love through their laptops, fraudsters from all over the world seem to be proliferating in the online dating industry.
"A dating scam is the perfect scam because people are so vulnerable," McGuinness said.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received 4,467 romance scheme complaints in 2012. There was an average financial loss of between $15,000 and $20,000, with the victims’ losses totaling more than $55 million.
The annual revenue from the online dating industry is estimated at $1.2 billion.
"The thing that is the most fearful to the scammers is losing their ability to scam," McGuinness said.
The Federal Trade Commission offers these tips on how to spot a scammer online:
- Wants to leave the dating site immediately and use personal email or instant messages
- Claims to be in love right away
- Claims to be from the United States but is traveling or working overseas
- Plans to visit, but is prevented by a traumatic event or a business deal gone sour
Romancescams.org is an information and advocacy organization that was formed in 2005 to create public awareness, provide accurate information and help victims of online scams get support.
While the FBI and other federal agencies work some of the romance scam 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.
The FBI recommends that people who think they've been victimized by a dating scam, or any other online scam, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Before forwarding the complaints to the appropriate agencies, IC3 analyzes the data, looking for common threads that could link complaints together and help identify the culprits.