CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - The Better Business Bureau held a press conference on Tuesday morning, February 13 about online romance scams, just in time for Valentine's Day.
According to the BBB, the fraudsters contact the victim and quickly move them off the dating sites, communicating through emails and text messages. They use scripted sets of emails to develop a relationship over several months. The scammer will eventually ask for small amounts of money to "feel out" the victim and victims often turn into unknowing accomplices of money laundering.
"Victims can be wiped out financially," said Michelle L. Corey, St. Louis BBB president and CEO. "Emotionally, it is also devastating. Some victims have considered suicide. If you are going to search for a date online, it's vital that you know the person on the other end of the conversation is who they say they are."
According to the BBB, a woman from Colorado reported she became involved with a man who claimed to be living in St. Louis. The woman, referred to as "Hope," said she was contacted by a man named "Paul Dreyer" who claimed to be an engineer working overseas on a contract.
Paul claimed his wife and parents were dead but his daughter was living with his family in St. Louis.
The BBB said Hope and Paul primarily communicated via text or email, but they did talk on the phone once or twice. Paul had an accent, but he claimed he was Italian and was originally from the east coast.
The two communicated for several months and Paul eventually asked for money to help with his daughter's school. Hope wired him $350 and bought $250 in gift cards.
Once Hope told her family what she had done, the BBB said family members convinced her something was not right. She was able to stop the wire transfer and recouped all but $76 in gift cards.
According to the BBB, she cut off communication with Paul, who continued to harass her.
She urges people to be careful when meeting people online, especially if they are overseas and cannot meet in person.
The BBB finds there is no "typical" victim of romance fraud. They can be male or female, young or old, straight or gay. The common denominator is that they are seeking a loving relationship and they believe they have found it.
Scammers often portray themselves as U.S. military members. Military officials say they receive thousands of complaints yearly from scam victims around the world. Officials note military members will never need money for leave or health care.
The majority of romance fraud has its home in West Africa, particularly Nigeria. there are also groups that operate in Russia and the Ukraine that employ online dating sites to defraud victims.
At any one time, there may be 25,000 scammers online working with victims. A company that screens profiles for dating told BBB that 500,000 of the 3.5 million profiles it scans monthly are fake.
The BBB offers the following tips for daters to avoid being caught in a romance scam:
- style="margin: 12px 0px; padding: 0px; font-family: ">Protect your identity and your wallet - Scammers prefer prepaid cards and money transfers. Never send money or any personal information to someone you've never met in person. Visiting with someone via video call doesn't mean they're not a scammer. Also, be cautious to not reveal any personal information or do anything you might regret later when using video applications. Some scammers use software to record video calls and then use it to extort money from victims. Don't succumb to pleas of financial crisis.
- style="margin: 12px 0px; padding: 0px; font-family: ">Think before going from public to private - Be hesitant if the conversation moves from a monitored site like social media or a dating site to a more private form of communication like email or instant messaging. This strategy might be a way for the scammer to draw you in without other people interfering.
- style="margin: 12px 0px; padding: 0px; font-family: ">Do your research - Pour over the profile image and description. If it sounds too good to be true, verify it. You can perform a reverse image search to see if the profile photo has been used on other websites. You can also copy a portion of their biography and search to see if it's been used on other sites. Scammers often use the same profile details and photos on multiple sites.
- style="margin: 12px 0px; padding: 0px; font-family: ">Ask for details and get specific - Request other forms of identification, like a photo of them holding a piece of paper with their username on it. Ask specific questions about details in their profile. If they claim to be a military member, ask for their official military address as those all end in @mail.mil. Scammers likely will make excuses for why they can't provide you more information.
- style="margin: 12px 0px; padding: 0px; font-family: ">Pay attention to communication - Be wary of bad grammar and misspelled words. No one is perfect but if mistakes often are repeated, it may suggest they aren't from where they claim. Be on guard for use of pet names or discussions of marriage early in correspondence.
- style="margin: 12px 0px; padding: 0px; font-family: ">Report it - If you feel like you've been victimized, report it to BBB's ScamTracker, the Federal Trade Commission and FBI.