ST. GEORGE — Valentine’s Day is typically associated with the celebration of romantic love, but increasingly, the holiday can also provide the perfect cover for cyber criminals to play Cupid, which can leave the object of their affection with more than a broken heart.
With the arrival of Valentine’s Day, the Utah Department of Public Safety has launched a campaign to share information about romance scams to protect Utahns from becoming a victim. The dangers surrounding meeting strangers online go beyond a broken heart or being ghosted – it opens the target up for a myriad of romance scams.
“The cyber criminals behind these scams aren’t looking for love, they’re looking for money, and they frequently get it,” the Department of Public Safety says.
Last year, it was reported that more than $200 million was lost in romance scams. In fact, people reported losing more money to romance scams in the past two years than to any other fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission. The agency received 25,000 consumer complaints related to romance scams in 2019 alone.
Moreover, new FTC data reveals that the number of romance scams people report has nearly tripled since 2015, and the total amount of money people reported losing in 2019 is six times higher than it was five years ago.
Finding love online – a $40 billion industry
Dating sites have found a niche that has evolved into a $40 billion industry and transformed the way Americans meet and develop relationships.
A survey of more than 4,800 adults conducted by the Pew Research Center in October 2019 revealed that more than half of adults age 18-29 reported using a dating site.
More than half of those surveyed said dating sites and apps were a “very or somewhat safe way to meet people,” while about 45 percent believe they are not too or not safe at all.
However, nearly half of them reported feeling more frustrated than satisfied, and the younger population – by far the biggest user of the apps – reported a higher number of troublesome interactions on a dating platform.
Scammers are smooth operators
Romance thieves typically operate by creating fake profiles on dating sites and apps, or they use social media sites like Instagram, Facebook or Google Hangouts to contact their targets and strike up a relationship to build their trust. They may even talk or chat several times a day and then make up a story to ask for money.
Many scammers will say they need money for an airline ticket, surgery or other medical costs, customs fees or gambling costs, and some say they need money for a visa or other travel documents. They also ask the target to either wire the money or put it on a prepaid card, because they can get cash quickly and remain anonymous. They also know the transactions are almost impossible to reverse.
FTC fights back
Consumers must protect themselves instead of assuming that dating sites in general are going to protect them, a premise supported by the fact that in September, the FTC sued online dating service Match Group, Inc., owner of Match.com, Tinder, OKCupid, PlentyOfFish and other dating sites.
The case was based on allegations that the company used fake love interest advertisements to trick hundreds of thousands of consumers into purchasing paid subscriptions on Match.com.
Match allows users to create Match.com profiles free of charge but prohibits them from responding to messages without upgrading to a paid subscription, but the FTC’s complaint alleged that Match sent emails to nonsubscribers stating that someone had expressed an interest in them.
Many people signed up for the paid service to retrieve those messages; however, a majority of the “You caught his eye” messages generated by Match came from accounts the company had already flagged as likely to be fraudulent.
Dating site dangers – an equal opportunity destroyer
Dating sites can place anyone at risk – regardless of gender – and those risks go beyond a loss of money or a broken heart. There is also the risk of a loss of freedom, as a report received by the Washington City Police Department last year revealed when a man almost landed in jail as the result of an online tryst.
The incident started when a woman called police to report a sexual assault that took place. When officers interviewed the woman, they learned she had met the man on the dating site Tinder, and when the pair met in person, the she reported that a sexual assault took place, Washington City Police Chief, Jason Williams told St. George News.
Through the course of the investigation, a forensic examination of the woman’s phone revealed a scenario that was entirely different than what was reported to police.
Texts sent back and forth between the couple revealed that the woman agreed to a meeting that was more than 50 miles away, Williams said, and when the couple met, there was activity that was clearly consensual, according to the texts allegedly found by police.
Problems developed, however, when the man, who promised to pay the woman for gas to make the trip, failed to keep the agreement. That prompted a number of “angry” texts that were sent between the pair that continued but did not resolve the issue.
It was shortly thereafter the woman made the call to police reporting that she was sexually assaulted.
Fortunately, Williams said, there was an investigation into the allegations and that “technology” was a tremendous help in determining what actually transpired between the two. He also said that everyone leaves a footprint that can be analyzed later.
“Had we not had that data to analyze during the investigation, who knows what could have happened?” he said.
Avoid becoming the victim of a Valentine scam
One way to quickly tell if a love interest is actually a romance scam is to do a reverse image search of the person’ profile picture to see if it’s associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, as those are a sign of a scam.
If an online love interest asks for money, stop communicating with the person immediately and conduct an online search for the type of job the person says they have to see if other users have heard similar stories, such as “oil rig scammer” or “U.S. Army scammer,” the FTC says.
The bottom line is to never send money or gifts to a sweetheart you haven’t met in person.
For those concerned about online dating matches, refer to the National Sex Offender Public Website’s sex offender registry, where the potential love interest can be searched either by name or location.
To report a scam to the FTC click here, and report the scam to the website where the scammer was contacted as well.
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