The internet can be a great matchmaker. Many authentic romances, even marriages, have sprung up when people have met over the internet. Unfortunately, looking for love online has its dark side, too. The Federal Trade Commission reports that “sweetheart scams” defrauded seniors of $139 million in 2020. Florida Weekly reports that in 2021, 704 Floridians age 60 and up lost a cumulative $47.1 million in this fashion.
Wooing someone for money, not love, is as old as time. The difference today is that the internet makes it easier to hide behind a fake identity. Internet dating sites try to put controls in place to weed out fraud, but predators also hang out on social media and other sites: The AARP reports the case of one woman, 75, who was swindled out of $137,000 by someone she met while playing Words With Friends.
A scamming suitor will move quickly to gain your trust. The fleecing begins when the fraudster asks for money. The initial request is usually for a nominal amount, to quell suspicion. But as time goes on, the amounts asked for increase. Requests are frequently cloaked in hard luck stories: the scammer has a medical emergency and has hospital bills to pay, has been arrested wrongfully and needs bail money, the car has broken down, was robbed and needs money to get out of a foreign country, etc. In one recent case, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor was taken in by a woman he met on a dating site who started out claiming she needed $25,000 to pay her lawyer. Several years and many hard-luck stories later, he had given her nearly $3 million. He lost his home while she bought a condo, boat, and cars. You can read about the case here.
Perpetrators of sweetheart scams almost always claim they live at a great distance from their prey and will present a variety of reasons they cannot you meet in person. They may claim they travel extensively for their jobs, are in the military, working on an offshore oil rig, or serving with a charitable organization overseas. Kate Kleinert of Pennsylvania says her on-line love interest claimed to be a surgeon working in Iraq with the United Nations.
Men and women alike can be caught in the trap. Experts warn against thinking you could never fall for it. Even the most savvy person’s better judgment can begin to crumble in the face of acute loneliness and desire for human connection. Take the case of Debbie Montgomery Johnson of Palm Beach County, a former Air Force intelligence official and senior bank manager. She writes about falling victim to a sweetheart scam in her book, The Woman Behind The Smile. Johnson relates that in 2010, at age 52, she was suddenly widowed after 26 years of marriage. Wooed online by a scam artist, she ended up sending her new “love interest” over a million dollars. Says Johnson: “It has nothing to do with how smart you are or how well trained you are or your race, religion, creed, whatever. It’s at that particular moment in time. Something’s happened in your life and you’re a little bit vulnerable to it. The pandemic has been a huge gain for scammers because people are looking for friends. They’re looking for communication with others.” And Kate Kleinert, mentioned above, says of the fraudster who pursued her: “He said the most beautiful things to me and I had been widowed for 12 years at that point and it was just nice to have a man ask me at the end of the day, ‘How was your day, honey?’ ”
While authentic relationships can originate online, you should approach every prospect with a heavy dose of skepticism. Here are some practical tips:
- Do not post extensive personal information about yourself on social media sites. This allows scammers to pretend to share your interests and values, and understand your vulnerabilities.
- Be very cautious about agreeing to a request to leave a dating or social media platform in order to communicate privately with your contact. It could be a red flag.
- If you have a photo of the person you’ve met online, go to https://images.google.com and upload the photo. Is the photo associated with many different names? If so, it’s likely that the photo is a fake, and the person is a fraud.
- Never, ever send money. Often, the scammer will ask that you send money by wire transfer, gift cards or other means that makes it difficult for you to get your money back. The FBI is also reporting an increase in romance scammers asking their prey to invest in cryptocurrency.
- Search online for the type of job the person says he/she has, plus the word “scammer.” Have other people posted similar stories? For example, search for “Iraq surgeon scam.”
- Be suspicious if your suitor uses generic terms of endearment like “honey” or “sweetie” and does not use your actual name. This could signal that your contact is working several targets at once and wants to avoid mixing up names.
If you believe that the person you’ve met online is trying to swindle you, or already has swindled you, cut off all communication immediately. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Also notify the website on which you met the person. Sorry to say, the chances are slim that you’ll get back any money you’ve lost.
For more information on sweetheart scams, check out Florida Attorney General’s brochure.
We all experience loneliness, crave connection, and want to trust others. But when it comes to meeting Mr. or Ms. Right online, it’s best to start out slow, stay on high alert, and never, ever send money.