When Cupid's arrow has bad intentions

Lucky in love? How are things going with that "romantic interest" that developed? Maybe it's not a matter of the heart. It could just be the desire to have new friendships or break the winter blahs by finding common interests with someone who shares your feelings, hobbies, or sentiments.

Once again, con artists are out there, and they are relentless. If you think this is small potatoes, think again. Alerts have been posted by the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI, by state attorneys general, Consumers Union and the Better Business Bureau, to name just a few. Romance or relationship scams are topping everyone's watchlist. The con artists work in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They might also be in Las Vegas, Chicago, Montreal or Brattleboro, and they all use similar tactics: find a potential victim, create and promote commonality, establish a distance relationship over time and make a plea for financial help.

The process begins with "trolling" where the criminal profiles the intended victim on the internet and attempts to make a connection. Trollers love Facebook, dating websites and affinity groups, including religion-based networks. They haunt any website that attracts potential victims and use impersonation to create "like-minded" persons. This practice can include the creation of well developed online identities that often copy details of another person to gain legitimacy and the confidence of intended victims.

Once a relationship has been established, the criminal is often in no rush to commit a crime. Rather, he or she will build confidence and trust until the time is right to run the full scam — a request for money or help. Once the trap is successfully sprung, requests are made for more money and the victim is often placed on a "suckers' list" to be shared with other criminals.

The warning signs? Watch out in any situation where someone you have not met in person professes an emotional connection to you in a relatively short period of time. If you first met on a social media website, beware if the individual wants to move the relationship to private communications by email or chat. Be concerned if you are asked to keep the relationship hidden from friends and family. Look for inconsistencies in what you are told regarding their appearance and personal history. Also, be alert to excuses in terms of not being able to meet with you or situations of desperation requiring immediate money.

Beyond the warning signs, there are a number of personal steps you can take to protect yourself.

Begin by maintaining a safe presence online. Be careful about what you post anywhere online including social media, dating websites, and clubs or organizations. Think of your postings as if you were writing out the information and tacking it up on bulletin boards around town. Stick to well-known, reputable websites (but realize con artists still troll these).

Research the person who contacted you using online searches and ask plenty of questions noting the responses. Whether a romantic or purely social relationship, be cautious about sharing photographs and personal information.

Scammers have been known to threaten or blackmail their intended victims. Always be wary of any requests for money or loans. One situation I am aware of is a request from a "Marine Veteran" for help in traveling to visit his new "friend" who is a retired Marine colonel. The colonel sent the scammer $2,500, but he did not make the trip, claiming a family emergency. Eventually, the "Marine Veteran" faded away and the colonel never saw his money returned.

If you are involved in a relationship that developed in social media and believe you have been scammed, stop all contact immediately and file a complaint with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov. You can also call the FBI field office in Boston 857-386-2000 or in Albany, N.Y. at 518-465-7551.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator who serves as the Vermont AARP Fraud Watch Network Coordinator. For information contact egreenblott@aarp.org.


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