Online romance scams stealing millions from victims

MILWAUKEE, (WKBT) - The Better Business Bureau (BBB) released a study that reveals an estimated 1 million Americans have been victimized in romance fraud scams over the last three years.

According to a news release, the total loss is near $1 billion.

The study – “Online Romance Scams: A Better Business Bureau Study on How Scammers Use Impersonation, Blackmail and Trickery to Steal from Unsuspecting Daters” – says the scheme can take a number of months to play out as the scammer gains the victim’s trust. The scammer eventually will begin to ask for small amounts of money to test the victim, then will ask for more and more. Victims often turn into unknowing accomplices of money laundering.

The study also recommends that law enforcement share more information about successful romance fraud prosecutions, do more training, and prosecute more cases. The BBB said more support services need to be offered for victims and that online dating and social media apps should better screen and remove profiles used for scams.

“We believe this is an underreported crime because victims are often too embarrassed to come forward,” said Jim Temmer, President and CEO of BBB Serving Wisconsin. “Because victims can be wiped out financially and emotionally, it’s crucial that you know that the person you are communicating with is who they say they are.  While many people have great success online, many have been wiped out both financially and emotionally.”

Among the report’s key findings:
•    There is no “typical” victim of romance fraud. They can be any gender, age, or sexual orientation. The common denominator is that they are seeking a loving relationship, and they believe they have found it.
•    Scammers often pretend to be 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 also are 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 to defraud victims. A company that screens profiles for dating companies told BBB that 500,000 of the 3.5 million profiles it scans monthly are fake – around 15%.

BBB offers the following tips for daters to avoid being caught in a romance scam:
•    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. Phone conversations or “meeting” someone via a video call doesn’t mean they’re not a scammer. Also, be cautious revealing any personal information or doing 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.
•    Think before going from public to private. Be hesitant if the conversation moves from a social media or a dating site to a more private form of communication like email, instant messaging, or texting. Dating sites often monitor messages to prevent scams, and scammers will try to use this strategy to draw you in without other people interfering.
•    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 profile photos have 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.
•    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 Scammers likely will make excuses for why they can’t provide you more information.
•    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, discussions of marriage, or professions of love early in correspondence.
•    Report it. If you feel like you’ve been victimized, report it to BBB Scam Tracker, the Federal Trade Commission and FBI.

For more information or further inquiries, contact the Wisconsin BBB at or 414-847-6000 (metro Milwaukee), 920-734-4352 (Appleton), or 1-800-273-1002 (elsewhere in Wisconsin). 

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