The Sacramento Federal Bureau of Investigation field office is raising awareness of romance scams and urging victims of crime to contact law enforcement.
Isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has increased online communication and virtual connectivity, including the search for a lifelong love. While many well-meaning singles search for matches online, criminals lurk among them, seeking to trap hearts and finances.
What is a romance scam? A romance scam is similar to ‘cat fishing’, a situation in which a person creates a false identity online to gain the affection and trust of a victim, fostering the illusion of a romantic or close relationship. The difference is that the person on the other end of the virtual relationship who is a romance scam is a cybercriminal who will exploit the victim for financial gain.
The main victim group targeted by romantic con artists are over 40 and divorced, widowed, elderly or disabled; however, all demographics are at risk. In 2019, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center received complaints from 2,206 California victims who suffered a combined total loss of $ 107,853,977. Nationally, 19,473 people were victims of trust scams in 2019, resulting in a total loss of $ 475,014,032.
Swindlers in love take advantage of the exploitation of their victims and are experts in their trade. Criminals search chat rooms, dating sites, and social networking sites for potential victims and often target unsuspecting people looking for love and companionship. Scammers often monitor social media accounts and glean information from online dating profiles and other sources to better understand how to manipulate and exploit their targeted victims.
As relationships progress, scammers recount serious life circumstances, tragedies, deaths in the family, injuries to themselves, or other difficulties in keeping their victims concerned and involved in their schemes. Criminals frequently ask victims to send money to help them cope with a financial situation they claim to be going through.
Criminals can also ask victims to receive funds in the form of a cashier’s check, money order, or wire transfer, claiming they are overseas and unable to cash the instruments or receive funds directly. The crooks ask the victims to redirect the funds to them or to an associate to whom they are supposed to owe money.
In some cases, the financial risk is less obvious. Scammers can ask victims to reship packages instead of redirecting funds. In these examples, victims risk losing money and may incur other expenses, such as bank charges and penalties, and in some cases may be prosecuted.
To avoid becoming a victim of a romantic scam:
– Be careful what you post and make public online. Scammers can use information shared on social media and dating sites to better understand and target you.
– Beware of anyone you meet for the first time online rather than in real life. People can pretend to be anything or anyone online.
– Search for a person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the image, name or details have been used elsewhere.
– Take it easy and ask lots of questions.
– Never send money to someone you meet online, especially by wire transfer.
– Never provide credit card numbers or bank account information without verifying the identity of the recipient.
– Never share your Social Security number or other personally identifiable information that can be used to access your accounts with anyone who does not need to know that information.
Be careful if your virtual loved one:
– Seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or social networking site to communicate directly.
– Try to isolate yourself from your friends and family.
– Asks for inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
– Promises to meet in person but then always finds an excuse not to. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
Keep in mind that most cybercriminals don’t use their own photographs; they use an image from another social media account as their own. A reverse image search can determine whether a profile photo is used elsewhere on the Internet and on which websites it has been used. Sometimes a search provides information that links the image to other scams or victims.
If you are the victim of a romance scam, seek help from law enforcement immediately. Report the activity to the Internet Crime Complaints Center at www.ic3.gov, the FBI field office in Sacramento at (916) 746-7000, or both. In addition, immediately contact your financial institution as soon as you discover fraudulent or suspicious activity and ask them to stop or cancel transactions. Please also report activity on the website where the contact was first initiated in order to prevent others from becoming victims.