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Kip Tips

Protect Your Wallet From Sweetheart Scams

Con artists who claim to be looking for love really are just looking for money.

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Nazareth had it right in the band’s 1975 hit “Love Hurts” that “love is just a lie made to make you blue, love hurts, ooh, ooh love hurts.” Clearly, the lyrics refer to a broken heart, but the part about love being a lie is particularly apt this time of year. That’s because scammers are using online dating sites, chat rooms and social media to con people – particularly single women – into falling in love with them and then handing over their money, according to the FBI.

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“There’s a lot more to worry about on Valentine’s Day than a broken heart,” says Becky Frost, senior manager of consumer education for credit bureau Experian. People who become victims of so-called sweetheart scams have to worry about ending up with an empty wallet, she says. Those who are swindled by these scammers reported losing $5,500, on average, in 2011, according to the National Consumers League, a nonprofit group that tracks fraud. The FBI says it's not unusual for losses to climb into the five figures.

How sweetheart scams work

The scam can take various forms, according to the FBI, but typically con artists craft false profiles (complete with attractive photos) to match the interests of people looking for love online. After initiating a conversation on a dating site, the scammers usually will ask victims to communicate directly through email. When targeting women, they typically claim to be American businessmen who are working overseas. After building a relationship with victims through email conversations, they will claim that they have some sort of financial emergency or that they’d like to visit but don’t have the cash to pay for a ticket. Or they might ask for the victim’s bank account information to send money as a gift. That request to send or receive money is a flashing warning sign, Frost says.

How to protect yourself

Don’t divulge personal information. Frost says that you should limit the details about yourself that you share on dating sites or on social media. The more specific you are, the easier it is for scammers to groom their profiles to match yours. Plus, providing information such as your birthday along with the year you were born can put you at greater risk of becoming a victim of identity theft. Above all, don’t provide details about your financial status – such as your income or net worth – that will make you more appealing to scammers.

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Exercise skepticism. The old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” is especially true when it comes to online dating, Frost says. Be skeptical if someone is a perfect match for you or if his picture looks like it’s from the pages of a magazine (it probably is). In short, assume people aren’t being truthful, she says.

Watch for red flags. Although suitors in sweetheart scams often claim to be American (or sometimes British) businessmen living abroad, in reality the scammers tend to be people overseas who speak English as a second language, according to the FBI. As such, their written messages will often contain misspellings and poor grammar. That's a clear red flag. Other red flags to watch for include instant professions of love, requests to leave the dating site in favor of personal email, and canceled plans to meet in person.

Deny all requests for money. The reasons that scammers come up with to ask for money might very well seem legitimate. They might claim that they have a medical emergency they can’t afford or need extra cash to tide them over until their next paycheck. They might claim their wallet and passport were stolen, or ask for money to purchase a plane ticket to visit. If you get any request for money, “walk away no matter how much you think you’re in love,” Frost says. Scammers will take your money and run. And if you’re asked to deposit a check and wire the money back to a scammer, it likely will be fraudulent and will bounce. If that's the case, you’ll be liable for the check you deposited and the scammer will disappear with the money you wired.

Frost says that people who make such requests or appear suspicious should be reported to the dating site. And those who are victimized by sweetheart scammers should report the scam at the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which is a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center.