Online Dating Scams High on the Rise
The Wall Street Journal reports, “He told her he was a Connecticut contractor. She was a 67-year-old widow. After they met last year through ChristianMingle.com, an online dating site, he sent her a photo and wooed her with romantic words.
Three months into the relationship, she began wiring money to help him. He had gone to Nigeria to oversee a project, he explained, but ran into one emergency after another. She sent $15,000, she says, before realizing the suitor was a scammer.
“I had lost my husband of 40 years; I was just looking to find love like everybody else,” says Pat, a Missouri businesswoman. “You’re lonely, so you fall for it.”
Online scams are as old as the Internet, but those that use romance as bait are on the rise as dating sites proliferate, authorities say. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission created a separate category for them among the web crimes it tracks: “romance scam.” Last year, the agency says, it received complaints of losses totaling $105 million, roughly even with the year before.
“The complaints reported are only a tip of the iceberg,” says FTC director Steve Baker.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command calls the problem “epidemic.” It says it receives hundreds of reports each month from victims bilked by individuals on dating sites who impersonate soldiers, including servicemen who have been killed in combat.
“Perpetrators are asking for money to purchase ‘leave papers’ from the Army, pay medical expenses from combat wounds or fly home from the war zone—all [items] taken care of by the military,” says spokesman Chris Grey, who has spoken with victims from the U.S., Australia, Japan and Britain.
Ahead of Valentine’s Day, Western Union has joined the Better Business Bureau in a campaign to warn consumers against sending money to anyone they haven’t met in person, warm feelings notwithstanding.
The wire-transfer company ranks romance scams among the most prevalent types of global fraud it sees, alongside certain kinds of Internet purchases and fictitious lotteries. Canada’s fraud unit reported $16 million lost to romance scams in 2012, up from about $600,000 in 2008. Authorities in the United Kingdom and Australia have also reported widespread problems.
Phil Hopkins, Western Union’s security chief, has traveled to Africa, where much of the fraud originates, to discuss the problem with law enforcement there. He says loosely structured fraud rings and lone schemers elude detectives. And perpetrators based outside the U.S. are tougher to prosecute.
In a statement, ChristianMingle.com says it has “extensive safeguards…to protect its members, identify questionable profiles and eliminate attempted fraudulent activity.” Spark Networks Inc., which also owns the Jewish relationship site JDate, says every new member must pledge not to send money to anyone they meet online and to report anyone who requests financial information on joining the site.
Criminals typically court victims over several months with poetry, flowers and other forms of flattery. They then lure victims off the dating site to communicate by email or instant message. Trust won, the perpetrators then present a crisis that requires money to resolve.
In San Jose, Calif., a 66-year-old woman dipped into her retirement savings and refinanced her house to invest $500,000 in an online suitor’s fictitious oil rig, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. The woman, who wasn’t named, sent the money in allotments, ending with $200,000 transferred to a Turkish bank.
When she contacted the district attorney’s office, it requested that the bank freeze the funds. An accomplice of the perpetrator, who is still at large, was arrested when he tried to withdraw the funds, and remains in jail in Turkey pending his case there. The bank returned the woman’s money.””
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