How it works
Internet dating scams are nothing new. In fact, their precursors -- sweetheart scams -- have been around for decades. Most of the practitioners of romance-based con games target women ages 45 to 60; it is believed they account for about 60 percent of reported victims. And it's a crime investigators know to be vastly underreported.
According to Tod Burke, a former police officer and criminal justice professor at Radford University, perpetrators in these cases look for certain types of victims. "They seek out the lone person who is looking for companionship, such as a recent widow or widower," Burke says.
Burke says in past years, criminals met their victims in bars or through magazine ads or even through staged "chance" meetings, but most modern sweetheart scams take root on the Internet. "The Internet makes it so much easier, especially with social networking," he says. Dating and matchmaking sites add immeasurably to the growing list of places where scam artists now find their victims, but that doesn't mean in-person meet-ups never happen anymore. "They stake out places like senior centers, shopping centers and malls, looking for persons who are walking by themselves," he says.
Burke says scammers like to target people who are isolated because it makes it that much easier to victimize them. And one sure way to get a person alone is by engaging in Internet dating scams.
The foreign connection
Almost anyone with Internet access has received an email from someone pretending to be a potential love interest. These sweetheart scams are pretty straightforward and easy to see through, but others aren't so transparent. James T. Ashe, certified public accountant and a certified forensic financial analyst, says that many who specialize in Internet dating scams work with international crime syndicates.
"You may have someone who is in Nigeria participating with someone who is in the Caribbean who is working with someone else in the United States. It's the 21st century version of organized crime," says Ashe.
Ashe says they add to their success by studying the types of responses that would appeal to their victims and act accordingly. Often, they bring money into their conversations with the victims on a gradual basis, after first establishing a relationship. The excuses for needing money range from financial emergencies to being in an accident to traveling to visit their new love interest. In any case, Ashe says a request for money -- whether as a loan or a gift -- is a red flag that should send the recipient running for cover. But if you do give money to a thief, Ashe says it's important to report it.
"Instead of chalking it up to, 'Oh well, I'm never going to get my money back,' call the police," Ashe says. He says government agencies are expending tremendous efforts to combat these scams, and only by reporting will these crimes ever be resolved. Plus, Ashe says, he's personally aware of several cases where the victim's homeowners policy has at least partially reimbursed him or her.
A growing tide
Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, Internet dating scams continue to proliferate at disturbing levels. According to Kim Garner, MoneyGram's senior vice president of global security and investigations, these scams are on the rise, and criminals are employing some unique ways to approach their victims.
"The bad guys will often go to widow or widower blogs and befriend these people," Garner says. She also says it's not uncommon for perpetrators to pretend to be affiliated with the military in order to gain the victim's confidence. Often, the con artist is operating out of Ghana or Nigeria.
Garner says that when someone starts asking for money, the lonely widow or widower should ask themselves how well they know the person. "Our main message to consumers is, 'Don't send money to someone you don't know,'" she says.
Garner says MoneyGram, which provides a secure way to send money, regularly campaigns against sweetheart scams and continually educates its customers to look out for warning signs.
"In 2011, through the month of November, we refunded 4,870 transactions amounting to $13.7 million in (thwarted romance scams)," she says. The refunds were processed when MoneyGram staff worked with potential victims to root out a possible scam before the money was delivered to the con artist. They also work with law enforcement officials, but despite joint efforts, the criminals keep finding ways to pull the wool over the eyes of the newly vulnerable. Garner says part of her job is to prevent MoneyGram clients from becoming victims in the first place.
"We are not interested in perpetrating fraud; you can't come back a few days later and say, 'I think I made a mistake.' The money is spent," says Garner.