Q. I have a family member entangled in a possible romance scam. Please help me educate her on how this scam takes place?
A. Scammers target Valentine's Day. Don't let your quest for love blind you to the realities of romance scams.
Online dating and social media have made it easier than ever to meet new people and find dates. Unfortunately, it has made scammers' work simpler, too. Con artists create compelling backstories, and full-fledged identities, then trick you into falling for someone who doesn't even exist. This form of deception is known as "catfishing." Sometimes a catfisher is simply a lonely person hiding behind a fake persona. But often it is the first step in a phishing scheme to steal personal information or a romance scam to trick you out of money. In some cases, victims have been tricked into moving illegal money from other scams ("money mule"), which is potentially a crime.
How the scam works
Most romance scams start with fake profiles on online dating sites created by stealing photos and text from real accounts or elsewhere. Scammers often claim to be in the military or working overseas to explain why they can't meet you in person. Over a short period of time, the scammer builds a fake relationship with you, exchanging photos and romantic messages, even talking on the phone or through a webcam.
Just when the relationship seems to be getting serious, your new sweetheart has a health issue or family emergency, or wants to plan a visit. No matter the story, the request is the same: they need money. But after you send money, there's another request, and then another. Or the scammer stops communicating altogether.
Tips to spot this scam
Too hot to be true. Scammers offer up good-looking photos and tales of financial success. Be honest with yourself about who would be genuinely interested. If they seem "too perfect," your alarm bells should ring.
In a hurry to get off the site. Catfishers will try very quickly to get you to move to communicating through email, messenger, or phone.
Moving fast. A catfisher will begin speaking of a future together and tell you they love you quickly. They often say they've never felt this way before.
Talk about trust. Catfishers will start manipulating you with talk about trust and how important it is. This will often be a first step to asking you for money.
Don't want to meet. Be wary of someone who always has an excuse to postpone meeting because they say they are traveling, in the military, or live overseas.
Suspect language. If the person you are communicating with claims to be from your home town but has poor spelling or grammar, uses overly flowery language, or uses phrases that don't make sense, that's a red flag.
Hard luck stories. Before moving on to asking you for money, the scammer may hint at financial troubles like heat being cut off or a stolen car or a sick relative, or they may share a sad story from their past (death of parents or spouse, etc.).
Protect yourself from this scam
Never send money or personal information that can be used for identity theft to someone you've never met in person. Never give someone your credit card information to book a ticket to visit you. Cut off contact if someone starts asking you for information like credit card, bank, or government ID numbers.
Ask specific questions about details given in a profile. A scammer may stumble over remembering details or making a story fit.
Do your research. Many scammers steal photos from the web to use in their profiles. You can do a reverse image lookup using a website like tineye.com or images.google.com to see if the photos on a profile are stolen from somewhere else. You can also search online for a profile name, email, or phone number to see what adds up and what doesn't.
To report a scam, go to the BBB Scam Tracker.
To learn how to protect yourself, check out these 10 steps for avoiding scams.
Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.