She opens her messages from the online dating site and her heart skips a beat.
Someone wants to meet her. But not just any man. He is the man of her dreams, dreams sparked the first time she watched An Officer and A Gentleman and enhanced by a decade of Lifetime movie-watching.
In his photo, he sports a military uniform and is dashing, clean cut, a man of action.
And he delivers the words any woman craves: You are the most beautiful woman in the world. I would love to spend time with you. I can’t wait to hear your voice.
There is another thing he can’t wait to do: Retire. But he can’t do that, he reports, without her help.
He directs her to a top-secret Pentagon website. He provides a confidential password. She clicks it open and there he is: The man who sent her the message has a bio, complete with military honors, impressive education credentials, and a job at the Pentagon.
Fortunately, the stars in her eyes don’t blind her to some basic mysteries. Who would give a total stranger a top-secret government password? Why would someone claim to live in a Massachusetts city yet work in the nation's capital? What would make a military officer be offended rather than impressed by her initiative when she tells him she has Googled his name and came up empty?
She suggests they Facetime, so she can see that Richard Gere doppelganger in person. And just like that, he vanishes like a puff of smoke.
Seduced into sending money
This woman was fortunate. But others are not and fall into an increasingly common online dating scam.
This so-called military man was attempting to seduce her, not into romance but into sending money, allegedly to allow him to retire but in fact allowing him to pad his pockets through the hard-earned money of the vulnerable.
Love is blind – which has opened the eyes to potential scammers trolling online dating sites to prey on vulnerable victims.
In 2022, Netflix released a documentary called "The Tinder Swindler," the story of a convicted fraudster posing as a billionaire diamond dealer. He defrauded multiple women in Europe of an estimated $10 million by wooing them first through dating apps, then using funds he'd stolen from other women to entice new victims by seducing them with visions of a lux life — travel on private planes, no-expense-spared dinners, and loved-up weekends in 5-star hotels across Europe.
These women were not "stupid" or "desperate." They were simply the victims of a master manipulator who was able to gain their confidence, as well as access to their life savings and credit, with financially devasting consequences.
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, which allows the public to report Internet-related crimes, romance scams, also known as confidence fraud, result in the highest number of financial losses to victims than any other online crime.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, losses in romance scams in 2020 reached a record $304 million, up about 50% from 2019, with a median dollar loss of $2,500 per victim.
But these numbers may be the tip of Cupid’s misfired arrow. The FBI says the true number is much higher, estimating that only about 15 percent of these crimes are even being reported.
“Behind the veil of romance, it’s a criminal enterprise like any other,’’ FBI Special Agent Christine Beining says on a romance scams report on the FBI Web site. “The Internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anyone you want.’’
For sure, real romance can be sparked online between two genuine people. But it pays literally to remember that not everyone has good intentions.
How to spot a scammer
So how can you avoid falling prey to an online dating scam?
As difficult as it might be, think with your head, not your heart. Here are some red flags to watch out for:
- The person wants to communicate offline, or at least off the website. Because dating sites can monitor suspicious behavior, scammers prefer taking their business elsewhere. Don’t do it; keep your interactions within the safety of the site.
- The person refuses to meet you, despite claiming to live two exits away. Or he or she may make plans to meet, then back out, with especially dramatic excuses. He or she quite possibly lives two continents away.
- The person has a social media feed depicting a life of great wealth, with yachts, exotic vacations, designer clothes, and the like. Single rich men and women can be looking for love on dating sites, but be careful: This image can be built with Googled images to create a pretense of wealth. A guy with yachts and trips to exotic islands would be good to repay “borrowed’’ money, right? Think again.
- The person asks you for money, a temporary loan, or access to your credit, which just makes you feel funny inside. Do not ignore that feeling. It's your brain telling you something's not right. Trust your instincts. This is perhaps the most basic tip – and the most difficult. That little voice inside you can be drowned out by the fluttering of a heart filled with possibilities. But listen to it. Talk it out with a friend. Think about it carefully.
And remember: You deserve every good thing the scammer is promising. He or she just doesn’t have it. They only offer heartache and loss, emotional and financial.
Report the scammer to the website and law enforcement, so that no other person gets hurt by this person. And do not be ashamed or embarrassed if you were defrauded by this person; this is how they get away with their crimes because they know their victims feel mortified and thus are reluctant to report the fraud to authorities.
Then use your newly found awareness to find the love you deserve, the love that is real and wonderfully human.
A review of your credit report can help to detect fraudulent activity and possible identity theft. Hanscom Federal Credit Union offers free reviews of credit reports and scores.
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