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.
Be the least bit skeptical and 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 Washington, D.C. area? What would make a military man be offended rather than impressed by her initiative when she tells him she has Googled his name and come up empty?
So 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 from a raging inferno.
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.
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.
In 2016, the center received almost 15,000 complaints categorized as romance scams or confidence fraud, nearly 2,500 more than the previous year. Losses associated with those complaints exceeded $230 million.
But this 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 Brennan 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 the scammer
So how to avoid online scams?
As difficult as it might be, think with your head, not your heart. Here are some red flags:
- The scammer 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 scammer refuses to meet you in person, despite claiming to live two exits away. Or he may make plans to meet, then back out, with especially dramatic excuses. He quite possibly lives two continents away.
- The scammer has photos depicting a life of great wealth, with yachts, exotic vacations, fancy clothes and the like. Rich guys do exist 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?
Trust your instinct. 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 just doesn’t have it. He offers only heartache and loss, emotional and financial.
Another caution: Women can be scammers too. Everyone should be careful.
Report him to the website, so no other person is hurt by this scammer. 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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Sandra Quadros Bowles has been a journalist for more than 30 years. She worked for many years in central Massachusetts before returning to her native New Bedford.