By Josh Stein
This Valentine’s Day, take care not to have your heart broken and your bank account emptied. One of the most common frauds my office sees is the sweetheart scam, when scammers manipulate victims’ romantic feelings to rob them of their money. In 2017, my office received 74 reports of sweetheart scams, and the victims lost approximately $2.74 million dollars. So far in 2018, nine victims have lost more than $800,000.
Here’s how sweethearts scams work: scammers reach out to potential victims on a number of websites and social networking apps – no site is safe. They begin by befriending you online. The scammer may claim you have a mutual friend, or that you both share common interests based on the information you’ve posted about yourself. Try to verify the information they share, and if you don’t think you know the person, don’t accept their request to connect. Be especially watchful of people who reach out after you’ve been through a major life event, like the loss of a spouse. They might be targeting you because they think you’re more vulnerable to a scam.
While these conversations will begin on sites like Facebook or match.com, scammers will often try to move them to email or phone chats, so they can’t be monitored as easily. Scammers will often claim to be living overseas for work, or traveling outside the country frequently. They’ll stay upbeat, positive and supportive so they can win your trust, and they’ll be quick to tell you how committed they are. These conversations can go on for months while the criminal grooms his or her victims.
But something will prevent them from joining you where you live – and it’s often a problem that can be resolved with money. They may claim they have expenses to pay off, such as loans, medical bills, school tuition fees, etc. Or they may have just gone through a major crisis like the loss of a loved one or an injury that’s derailed their plans. When they ask for your money, they’ll promise to use it to resolve their situation and join you in the U.S. But they’ll either disappear after they steal your money, or they’ll continue asking for your money.
Using apps and websites to make friends and keep in touch is normal and healthy. But they’re a gateway for scammers, too. Be careful with online relationships, because you do not know that the person behind the computer screen is who they say they are. When in doubt, reach out to your friends or family to verify. If you’re an adult with older parents, make sure you talk to them about watching out for scammers who play on their emotions. Learn more about sweetheart scams, and if you think you, or someone you know, has been scammed, let us know by calling 1-877-5-NO-SCAM or filing an online complaint at www.ncdoj.gov/complaint. Let’s keep any more hearts from breaking this Valentine’s Day.
Josh Stein serves as attorney general for North Carolina.