If you've never actually met the guy you hooked up with on an online dating site and were surprised to find that he has a British accent when you first talked on the phone, we might have some bad news — particularly if he asked you to send him some money so he could fly out to see you, then claimed that all flights out of Seattle have been canceled indefinitely. Since people have caught on to the fact that any Nigerian prince worth his salt can take care of his finances without help from random Americans, online crooks have turned to "romance scams." They're now spending months building relationships with potential victims, then convincing them to drain their bank accounts.
We've heard of thieves posing as members of the U.S. military, but Reuters reports that the problem is much more widespread, and it's on the rise. Western Union, which is often used for these shady money transfers, says complaints to the company shot up 30% in November. Pete Ziverts, a Western Union vice president, says the company has been flagging more suspicious transactions and trying to increase awareness. Many criminals are lurking on dating sites, but they could be on any site where people discuss a shared interest. "All scams have an emotional hook to them," says Ziverts. "Relationship scams are obviously so much more emotional. It's amazingly cruel."
The FBI says that these operations usually originate in Nigeria, Ghana, England and Canada, and people of all ages and from all backgrounds have been victimized. Typically the relationship starts as a friendship in an online forum and escalates to personal emails and even phone calls. The process might go on for weeks or months, and when the scammer has finally built up the victim's trust, they'll claim they've fallen on hard times and ask them to send money to cover something like travel expenses or holiday gifts.
Barb Sluppick, who was nearly scammed, now runs an online support and awareness site that has more than 48,000 members. She says one of the worst parts of being targeted is that those around you assume that you're a gullible idiot. However, she says, "It happens to men, it happens to women. If you are on the Internet and you have an email address and you are open to having a relationship with someone, you can become a victim of this." These crimes work because love can make even the smartest people ignore warning signs. Just keep in mind that a true friend wouldn't ask someone they've only met online to send them money to outfit their entire family with PlayStations this Christmas.
Romance Scams Heat Up For The Holidays [Reuters]
Image via Branislav Senic/Shutterstock.