The recent scandal surrounding Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o and his virtual “girlfriend” has brought a particular type of fraud crime back into the spotlight. But the fact is, sweetheart scams are especially prevalent this time of year, as Valentine’s Day approaches. Here is how the scam works, and things you can do to protect yourself from it.
Sweetheart scams are not new
These scams happen all year long, and are nothing new. Sweetheart scams, or catfishing scams, were on the Better Business Bureau‘s top scams list for 2011. As traffic on social media and dating sites has grown, so, logically, has the number of scammers operating.
Ken Chaplin, senior vice president for Experian’s ProtectMyID, said, “Individuals trying to establish a relationship through online dating services and social communities are prime targets for identity thieves who know how to prey upon the vulnerabilities of those seeking relationships.”
But this time of year, with the sentimentality of the season and advertisers targeting lovers, scammers are especially targeting vulnerable people who are looking for love.
How they work
Sweetheart scammers operating on dating sites create a fake profile designed to lure in lonely people. They create a desirable “catch,” with looks, personality and financial stability. They will often target a specific type of profile on a dating site and tailor their interests and compatibility accordingly.
Once trust has been established, the scammer will reveal some problem, such as a medical emergency or travel issue, saying things like “I would never ask you for money, except…” Or they may slowly try to gain more and more personal information to build a profile to steal the identity of the mark.
What you can do to avoid them
ProtectMyID offers some tips for people looking for love online to avoid being taken.
“Profiles should tease, not disclose everything,” says the identity theft protection service. Don’t disclose any personal information, such as phone numbers or addresses, on your profile. Likewise, do not reveal such information in your online chats until a real bond has been established. That generally means having met face-to-face on more than one occasion.
It also recommends doing your own background search on the person you are chatting with, even after trust has been established and some personal information is known. If they are who they claim they are, you can breathe easier. If things don’t stack up, there could be a problem.
It also recommends using a unique password for your dating account, one that doesn’t include any known personal identifiers like birth dates or pet names.
The Federal Trade Commission gives some warning signs to look for when being contacted on a dating site.
– If the person you are chatting with wants to switch over to personal email right away to get off the site, beware.
– If the person you are chatting with immediately professes deep emotional feelings for you, beware.
– If the person you are chatting with says they are in the United States, but you find out differently, beware.
– If the person you are chatting with keeps cancelling planned meet-ups, beware.
And especially if anybody ask you for money, don’t just beware. Lose that contact and report the scammer to the site’s administrators immediately.