Online romance scammers have swindled U.S. and Canadian consumers out of nearly $1 billion in the last three years, the Better Business Bureau reported Tuesday.
The scammers will break your heart, while draining your bank account, said Michelle Corey, president of the St. Louis Better Business Bureau, one of five bureaus that sponsored a national investigation into online romance scams.
“It's growing, and they're getting more vicious in their tactics,’’ Corey said. “There have been people who have committed suicide as a result of being victimized by this. There have been people that have lost their life savings to this. These are very professional criminals doing this work, and they do it for a living.’’
A large percentage of the fraud originates in Nigeria, a hotbed for online scams of every ilk, Corey said. Victims have lost hundreds and even thousands of dollars to scoundrels who hide behind fake online profiles and spend weeks building trust before asking for money.
The study was sponsored by bureau offices in St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas, Omaha and San Francisco.
“This is a time that many people are looking to celebrate with loved ones,’’ Corey said. “But for some, they may be looking for that special someone. And, oftentimes, they turn to online dating sites for that.’’
Who’s at risk?
There are no “typical” victims, according to the report. They can be male or female, young or old, straight or gay. Anyone who visits an online dating site is a potential target.
A company that screens profiles for online dating companies found nearly 500,000 fraudulent profiles among the 3.5 million it scans every month.
St. Louisans are among the 1 million Americans who have fallen victim, Corey said.
In one case, a 55-year-old man sent several thousand dollars to a young Russian woman to pay for her visit.
“He went to Lambert Airport for 24 hours, waiting for someone who didn't show up,’’ Corey said. “And then started getting calls and e-mails for more money.”
According to the bureau, a woman from Colorado met a man online who claimed to be a St. Louisan working abroad. After a time, the fraudster asked for several hundred dollars to help with his daughter’s schooling. When the woman got wise and blocked the wire transfer, he started harassing her.
For every victim who comes forward, there are others who won’t report the fraud.
“They don't want someone to think that they should have known better — that they were gullible,’’ Corey said. “And they're embarrassed.’’
How it works
The scammers create fake profiles, using photos they steal from websites or social media accounts. In many cases, they claim to be members of the U.S. military.
The scammer grooms the relationship, often following a script. After several weeks of trust-building, the cheat asks for money to help with a personal or business emergency, to be wired through Western Union or MoneyGram.
“The victim is so convinced the person is real that they're willing to do anything for the love of their life,’’ Corey said. “It's somewhat of a brainwashing process that they go through.’’
The bureau's advice:
- Carefully quiz people you meet online.
- Do internet searches of text used in profiles. If the scammer is using a script, the words might turn up in other profiles.
- Do an internet search of photographs. Google Chrome, for example, allows you to right click on a photograph and search to see where it has been used before.
- Never send money to someone you’ve not met.
Read the full report on the Better Business Bureau website.
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard