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BBB on seniors - Scam alert: Love can make some folks do crazy things

November 21, 2016 GMT

We’ve all heard the expression that “love makes us do crazy things.” Well, that is exactly what these so-called romance scammers are counting on when they exploit the hearts and feelings of their unsuspecting victims.

As with many scams, we can’t imagine falling for such a ruse, but when we are falling in love we can lose touch with our otherwise-practical sense of judgment. That is precisely why romance scams accounted for hundreds of millions of dollars from tens of thousands of hopeless romantics last year alone.

Romance scams typically happen online, and the targets are most often recently widowed or divorced individuals over the age of 50. Victims can be either men or women, though women are at a slightly greater risk for being a target in these cases, probably because this scam relies largely on the manipulation of one’s emotions.

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Romance scammers contact their victims through online dating websites or sometimes Facebook. They are looking for individuals who have expressed interest in finding a relationship, because that is exactly what they have to offer. These scammers craft elaborate fake aliases and profiles with pictures that are certainly not their own and that will be the most appealing to their targets. They may even have several fake profiles on different websites with the same alias to bolster their story, just in case their targets decide to check them out.

Romance scammers often claim to be U.S. military personnel stationed overseas, recently widowed, and possibly with a child to give off the appearance of being a responsible, caring, paternal type. They also may pose as a young, attractive woman, either a teacher or a missionary, who is seeking help of some sort, depending on who they are targeting.

The scheme: The first step in the romance scam requires the fraudsters to build trust and learn as much as they can about their victims. They will quickly request to communicate outside of the avenue in which you met, either through personal email or text messaging. Once a rapport is established, the scammer will profess his deep love for his victim.

Next, they will explain why it is not possible to meet in person; usually they reside overseas, so meeting would be very difficult. Romance scammers are very attentive and keep in almost constant contact. They even may send small gifts such as flowers, as any good mate would do. These scammers will start by asking for a small favor in order to gauge whether the victim will be likely to help in the inevitable emergency that will occur in the future and require a much larger sum of money that they will request be sent by Western Union or Money Gram.

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Romance scammers play a very long game. They invest a lot of time in their victims and often reap very large sums of loot for their persistence. The emotional devastation for victims of this scam is uniquely intense, as it stems from a betrayal by their supposed true love. This, unfortunately, often leads to a deep sense of shame that can either lead to denial of the scam or at least refusal to report it.

Remember, these con men (and women) are professionals and they are very good at their jobs. If you do think you are a victim of a romance scam, it is important to remember you are not alone - far from it in fact; you are one in several thousand. If this is the case, stop all payments immediately and report it to your local police department and the Internet Crime Complaint Center at IC3.gov, as well as to any internet dating sites where you met the scammer.

Romance scams also pose a risk of a continuing cycle of victimization. For instance, once the scammer is found to be a fraud, they might contact the victim, claiming to be law enforcement who can help get any lost money back for a fee. Another possibility is that the scammer admits to the initial ploy, but insists that they really did fall in love with you and simply continues the scam.

Victims of the romance scam might re-visit a dating site after this failed relationship and match with another scammer who got their information from a “suckers list” of people who have previously fallen victim to a scam that scammers notoriously sell and trade with each other.

As a general rule, if you meet someone online who, for any reason, cannot meet you in person, be suspicious. Be very suspicious. This is almost a sure sign of fraud, so you should not send them any money or give them any personal or financial information. If you are unsure or have any question about corresponding with an unknown person online, call the BBB at 713-641-6141 with any questions before you relinquish any funds, or worse, get your heart broken.

Melissa Ramsey is the BBB Education Foundation columnist. For more information, call 713-341-6141.

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