The holiday season is also the season for cat fishing. Don’t fall for a romance scam

The holiday season is also the peak time for scammers coming up with fake romance. Rather, thousands of Americans looking for a new love to help usher in the New Year will be wooed by online crooks who use fake identities and empty promises to deter lovers from their savings – or worse.

More Californians report being victims of such frauds than residents of any other state, a testament to the size of the state, if not necessarily its collective loneliness. And while the main targets in 2020 were people aged 40 to 69, the Federal Trade Commission said in February, the number of reported victims has increased in every age group.

Consumers reported more than 30,000 of these scams to the FTC in 2020, three times more than in 2016, with losses quadrupling to $ 304 million. The median loss was $ 2,500.

Are we more and more gullible? Who knows? What we do know is that the pandemic has been a blessing for crooks, helping them to get noticed from a distance and accelerating the growth of these crimes.

Fortunately, there is plenty of advice available from the FTC and other privacy-conscious organizations on how to recognize and protect yourself from scammers in suitors’ clothes.

Hunting grounds

Love scammers roam every land where people are looking for love or just trying to hook up with strangers. This includes dating services and hookup sites, but also social media networks, where about half of the scams in recent years have originated.

A key part of the scam is the scammer’s ability to pretend to be someone they are not. Remember Peter Steiner’s New Yorker cartoon of a dog in front of a computer saying, “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog”? This is the central problem here.

Some companies, such as the EHarmony matchmaking site, try to avoid the problems by preventing people from trolling the site for victims. They require users to fill out detailed profiles and then use that information to decide who can connect with whom on the site. Yet even on sites and social networks that require the use of real names, like Facebook, scammers are finding ways to create fake accounts by copying other people’s pictures and creating fake stories.

The con

Although their methods vary, all love con artists start with trying to gain your trust, often through flattery and storytelling.

“They’re very compelling. They’re very credible,” said Rhonda Perkins, an attorney in the FTC’s marketing practices division. In particular, she said, crooks are good at finding ways to bond with their victims through shared experiences or interests.

“If you’re religious, they’re religious. If you love pets, they love pets. If you’ve just suffered a devastating loss, they’ve just suffered a devastating loss. They’re really good at building those connections. Said Perkins. “They’re insightful. They listen. Based on the things you are talking about, they pick up those signals. They use them to echo similar consumer interests. “

Once the hook is fixed, the crooks then start parting with your money.

Chelsea King at romancescams.org described it this way: “Scams start with small requests to test the water. This can range from a paycheck that didn’t come to a Social Security check that was lost in the mail. The scammer will demand to borrow money from a victim with a promise to pay it back. If the victim agrees, the crooks know they have the green light to proceed.

The requests might seem logical enough – your suitor says she needs the money to pay the dating app membership fees and keep in touch, or that he wants to buy a plane ticket to come to you. see. Or the rationale could be something extraordinary and heartbreaking – a health emergency, say, or a family tragedy.

Scammers usually ask for gift cards or non-bank wire transfers (think Western Union). Regardless of the amount or type of payment requested, the FTC advises, “Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person, even if they send you money. money first. “

A more insidious scam seeks to trick someone into laundering money. According to the FBI, the scammer will ask the person they are dating online to help them with a task of accepting funds and then transferring them to a third party. What the “money mule” in the middle doesn’t realize is that the funds are the proceeds of a crime and that the transfer is designed to prevent cops from tracing to its source. Worse yet, if the ploy is discovered, the money mule can be prosecuted even if he had no idea that a crime was being committed.

The Crime Junkie podcast highlighted another wrinkle this year. Several women across the country said they went to a bar to meet a man they recently hooked up with online, only to stand up after being ordered to order two glasses of a distinctive alcohol – then another strange man came in and try to get them to leave with him. No one knows where that would have gone, but an FBI agent interviewed on the podcast suggested the women may have been targeted for human trafficking.

red flags

Scammers often stick to a formula that has worked in the past. Here are some of the defining elements of the mock courtship ritual, according to the FTC, EHarmony, people search company SocialCatfish.com and cybersecurity company Norton.

Their profiles promise an exceptional companion, but are general enough to appeal to almost anyone. It’s by design on matchmaking sites – scammers try to match as many potential victims as possible.

They put the whirlwind into romance. SocialCatfish.com warned: “Be careful if someone seems to fall in love with you and writes and says all these loving things about you after a short time,” especially if they haven’t. not even spoken yet.

They say their work keeps them apart – really aloof. Serving in the military is a common demand. Watch out for so-called military personnel asking for help paying for things the military provides, such as medical care.

They may agree to meet you in person, but they never do. Perkins said the cases she’s handled at the FTC have one common thread: Authors always have reasons they can’t meet with you in person, but they need your money nonetheless.

They may also find reasons not to video chat, and their online profiles contain few photos.

They try to move your conversations away from the site where you met. The crooks do this to avoid the security features of the site.

They tell stories that are inconsistent and give vague answers when asked specific questions. Meanwhile, their questions seem too personal or inappropriate.

They claim to have recently been widowed.

And when they ask for money, which they inevitably do, they have a specific method of payment in mind – an irreversible method of payment. If your new overseas “soul mate” tells you the only way to help is through Western Union, Perkins says, “that’s a scam.”

How to protect yourself

Avoid the temptation to rush into a new intense relationship. Scammers know that when you quickly fall head over heels, your money can spill over. “We can’t say it enough: don’t send money transfers or gift card numbers to someone you’ve met through an online dating site or social media,” Perkins said.

Before a relationship heats up, try to verify that your online lover is who they say they are. There are a plethora of sites that can aggregate public records, social media posts, and other published data associated with a name or address, albeit for a fee. You can also run the person’s profile photo (s) through reverse image search, like those from Google or TinEye.com.

While you’re at it, throw in some of the most flowery messages he sent you through Google. Images copied from someone else’s profile and recycled scripts are telltale signs of a scammer. Do the same with your new beau’s professed profession, to see how many times people have been deceived by suitors online claiming to be such a person. Especially if your beau claims to be working on an offshore oil rig.

Insist on video chat. At the very least, you’ll know if the person you chatted with matches their profile picture.

Do not reveal any sensitive personal or financial information.

Execute your thoughts by people you trust to get their opinion on the legitimacy of your suitor. Perkins said, “We’ve found that when people talk to someone they trust and get that gut test… it helps them avoid losing money.” If your friends and family tell you they’re worried and the whole setup seems fishy, ​​listen to them.

And if you conclude you’ve been scammed, Perkins said, contact the company that issued the gift card or money transfer and try to reverse the transaction, even though the odds of getting a reimbursement are low. Also report the person to the FTC, FBI, and the site where you encountered the dream boat that turned out to be a nightmare.


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