Imposters of the Heart at Home or Abroad
Beware of scammers looking to steal your love and your loot in the guise of romance
By Karin Leperi
Used to be that the number one crime in America was identity theft. No more. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), more than $200 million dollars was swindled by victims of online romance scams in 2016. As a result, the new #1 crime in America is no longer identity theft but rather imposters in all their disguises.
One disgusting variant is the imposter of the heart. Also known as fakes, frauds, pseudos, shammers and shysters, these individuals lure victims in through calculated manipulation and by preying on emotions. If you are single and looking for love online, be aware that you are at risk. Victims are often recently divorced, widowed, elderly, or disabled. It’s easier than ever since more people are turning to online dating sites to search for love and companionship. In the process, they drop their guard and their sensibilities, making them a prime target for a romance scam.
About 10% of profiles posted to online dating sites are scams, according to the internet technology news site VentureBeat. For some, like MillionaireMatch.com, vetting is non-existent, attracting predators whose identity is protected by the anonymity of the internet. Deception is easy and the money is big.
The general modus operandi is that the heart thief develops a rapport online, eventually eliciting trust. As con artists and smooth talkers, they find out what you want and become the solution. They are your soul mate. If you like opera, they do too. If you like long walks on a sandy beach, they mirror your interest.
That’s the warmup. Conversations generally move from the dating site to messaging, with the exchange of love letters and professions of amour, as well as poetry and praise. Offers of future marriage are common. Once the victim is hooked, demands for money start. They become constant, relentless, and shamelessly tied to professed love for one another.
How to Spot a Heart Thief
Though most popular online dating sites have some type of security measure in place, it is still up to you to protect yourself against emotional and financial harm. And don’t think being educated makes you immune from imposters. Studies by the Department of Justice bear out that those with a college degree or some college are most susceptible to con artist scams. The “heart stealers” look for your vulnerabilities and weaknesses and then use that to their advantage.
Here are some red flags that highly suggest extreme caution is in order when pursuing affairs of the heart:
- The person claims to be an investor, a doctor, lawyer, or military member working overseas. He/she may also brag about their alleged education. For women, they usually claim to be a model.
- The profile photo looks like a model and is against a white background (means it has probably been pilfered off the internet).
- They ask to move the conversation off the dating site and to email or texting. Red flag!
- Excuses are many when it comes to meeting in person.
- Your suitor quickly professes his/her love for you and showers you with love and attention. He moves from casual acquaintance to ardent amour in record time, oftentimes without even having met you. Beware of fast lovers as cash payouts is what motivates them.
- It is never their fault, always another party. They are quick to point the finger away from themselves.
- According to the State Department website on romance scams, “Be skeptical if the person asks you for money to pay for a new business venture, an accountant, hospital bills, visa fees, or legal expenses and/or seems to have a lot of sudden problems overseas.”
- They may ask you to cash a check for them through your bank account because they are out of country or unable to do so themselves.
- They ask for your bank account information or money on the pretext of an emergency involving their business or family. The masquerader of intimacy asks for cash/money order/wire transfer and implores you to trust him. Prepaid debit cards are like burner phones – they are impossible to trace and once the money is drawn, it is gone forever. No surprise that they were used by 58 percent of the victims in 2016.
- Another twist is that the scammer may ask for money under the pretext of an investment or loan. Don’t fall for this! To gain your trust they may volunteer to sign a “legal” contract.
- The emergencies continue as do their requests for more money. The victim will continue to be bilked out of their savings until they refuse. It is at this point that the romance ends abruptly.
Once the fraudster scams you for as much money as they think they can squeeze from you – the mark – they then move on to other hapless souls looking for romance.
Many bogus lovers are serial; they know what it takes to win someone’s trust and they expertly manipulate victim hearts with professed love and around-the-clock attention. Seldom will you meet them and even more seldom will you ever receive gifts from them. Their goal is to bilk you of your money and leave no trace for legal action.
Many love predators are based in Eastern Europe and Africa; usually from Nigeria and Ghana, where they scan dating sites looking for the next potential victim. They create fake online profiles, often stealing wholesome and sexy images from the internet and pretending to be that person. (Check the public forum (RomanceScam.com) to see if your picture is one of many reported stolen identities.)
The stories are too numerous – ones where individuals have depleted their retirement, life savings, and even mortgaged their home – all in the name of love.
One recent case involved a romance-turned-sour when the degenerative gigolo boldly declared he couldn’t see the dupe anymore, though she had invested heavily in his business. The reason he gave was he wanted to birth a son, knowing from the outset the mark was past child-bearing age.
Be Strong of Heart and Fight Back Legally
If your heart and pocket book are stolen by fraud, you can fight back. Once past the shock of betrayal, the humiliation and deceit, here are steps to hold the fraudster accountable:
- Admit you are the victim of fraud. Many intelligent people have been shammed and there is no shame. Average financial losses are from $5,000 – $10,000, but the F.B.I reports many victims losing more than $400,000.
- Document the fraud by reporting total loss to your local police/sheriff.
- Next, contact appropriate federal departments to report the con artist. This will cost you nothing other than your time. The payoff is you might recoup some of your loss – though the chances are slim – and you can help prevent others from being frauded in the future.
Army Criminal Investigation Command – According to Army CID, “Army CID receives hundreds of allegations a month from victims who state they got involved in an online relationship with someone, on a legitimate dating website or other social media website, who claims to be a U.S. Soldier. The “Soldier” then begins asking for money for various false, service-related needs such as transportation costs, communication fees, marriage, processing and medical fees. Victims of these online scams have lost tens of thousands of dollars, with a very low possibility of recovery.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation/Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) – The IC3 accepts online Internet crime complaints from either the actual victim or from a third party to the complainant.
Federal Trade Commission – If your fraudster steals your identity and bank accounts, this is where to report. Great educational materials on the latest in scams.
Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – Report crimes to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). This includes marriage fraud, bulk cash smuggling and financial crimes. (This is important as DHS INTERPOL Washington is co-managed by Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). If the amount is large enough, INTERPOL can work with worldwide, police-to-police communications and criminal intelligence network.)
State Department – The website reads: “Every day, the Bureau of Consular Affairs receives reports of U.S. citizens of all ages and backgrounds taken in by international scams. Scam artists take many shapes, and may work with their victims over time by pretending to be someone they are not. In some cases, they may eventually attempt to lure a person into sending money or unknowingly committing crimes, such as smuggling drugs into other countries.” If your scammer is a foreigner, report it to the U.S. State Department.
U.S. Senate Committee on Aging – If the scam involves a senior citizen, report it to the Senate Committee on Aging.