This blog series is dedicated to sharing real-world stories of identity theft and fraud — and just how devastating these crimes can be on organizations, individuals, and families. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, our latest post reveals the perils of succumbing to online romance scams, and what the lovelorn can do to protect against them.
Victim Wired Crime Ring Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars
The relationship between a Japanese woman, identified in reports only as F.K., and a U.S. Army captain stationed in Syria began innocently enough: they met online, through an international social network that connected pen pals online. Over 10 months of daily emails, the relationship grew into an internet romance, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported the case. But it ended with the woman $200,000 in the red and on the verge of bankruptcy, after she borrowed money from family and friends to help her beau, Capt. Terry Garcia, with his plans to smuggle a bag of diamonds he said he found in Syria with help from several associates, including someone claiming to be a Red Cross diplomat.
It turns out that there were no diamonds, and no Captain Garcia. Instead, F.K. fell victim to a far-flung scam cooked up by a ring of cyber thieves operating in Los Angeles and Nigeria. U.S. law enforcement officials apprehended some of the culprits, calling it “one of the largest cases of its kind in U.S. history.” And the fallout is heartbreaking: as noted in the federal complaint, “F.K. was and is extremely depressed and angry about these losses. She began crying when discussing the way that these losses affected her.”
Anatomy of a Romance Scam
The rise of online dating apps or social networking sites have become a preferred way for millions of people above to meet someone. But instead of finding a soul mate, some fall prey to a “stole mate” — a fraudster bent on tricking them into sending them money. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), people reported losing $143 million to romance scams in 2018, with a median reported loss of $2,600 (for people over 70, it was $10,000). As with the case of the fake Capt. Garcia, romance scammers post fake profiles on dating or networking sites and apps, or approach targets on social media sites including Instagram, Facebook or Google Hangouts. Once they make a connection, scammers may quickly profess love for the victim and attempt to lure the love interest off the site or app to communicate through private email. (Capt. Garcia claimed he was not allowed to use his phone in Syria, and communicated with F.K. through an email language translator, evidently so as not to reveal his foreign identity.)
Romance scams may not be easily or quickly detected, as scammers may take their time to build trust in small steps, gradually moving from establishing common life experiences and backgrounds, to more tender expressions of affection. They tap into their targets’ emotional vulnerability, often communicating several times a day, to establish the contours of their identity, sometimes presenting themselves as working on an offshore oil rig, in the military, or as a doctor with an international health organization.
Once trust and an emotional bond are established, the scammers make up a story and ask the target for money — often requesting that payments be wired or sent by reload cards in relatively small installments (payments made this way are almost impossible to reverse). Romance scammers will say need the money to cover travel expenses; to pay for surgery for other medical expenses; to pay customs duties; or pay off gambling debts, among other “pressing” needs.
What Should You Do to Protect Yourself from Romance Fraud?
The best way to avoid getting trapped by a romance scammer, according to the FTC, is simple: never send money or gifts to, or share personal information with, a romantic interest you haven’t met in person. Here are four steps the agency suggests you take to protect yourself if you suspect a romance scam:
- Stop communicating with the person immediately.
- Talk to someone you trust, and pay attention if your friends or family say they’re concerned about your new love interest. Do not let a scammer rush you into wiring money or sending a reload or gift card.
- Do a search for the type of job the person has to see if other people have heard similar stories. For example, you could do a search for “oil rig scammer” or “US Army scammer.”
- Do a reverse image search of the person’s profile picture to see if it’s associated with another name or with details that don’t match up – those are signs of a scam.
Of course, if you think you have been scammed, contact your bank right away.
Although romance scams can be distressing and upsetting, there are a number of identity theft protection tools available from IdentityForce that can detect changes in your credit profile, materially lessen the risk of ‘losses for star-crossed lovers,’ and give you peace of mind.
Get started with your free trial of IdentityForce identity theft protection today.