$197M lost by victims of 'Sweetheart Scam,' FBI says

The FBI estimates $197 million was lost in 2015 alone to victims of romance scams and similar frauds.   AP photo | For lehighvalleylive.com It has local law enforcement and Pennsylvania State Police warning folks to remain vigilant online during Valentine's...

$197M lost by victims of 'Sweetheart Scam,' FBI says

The FBI estimates $197 million was lost in 2015 alone to victims of romance scams and similar frauds.

  AP photo | For lehighvalleylive.com

It has local law enforcement and Pennsylvania State Police warning folks to remain vigilant online during Valentine's Day and the days ahead.

In what is known as the "Sweetheart Scam," the FBI says victims are contacted online by someone pretending to be interested in them. He or she may receive a phony profile or phony photo from the scammer, forming a connection.

The next thing they know, victims begin receiving roses, chocolates and gifts. But ultimately, the victim's newly-found admirer is going to ask the victim for money.

The perpetrator typically preys on the loneliness of their target to quickly build trust and will then solicit money by saying they need to purchase a passport or plane ticket, to pay off medical bills for a family member, to buy a new computer, or something similar.

Although the targets of sweetheart scams are often men and women over the age of 60, victims come from all walks of life, state police say.

"We've seen successful, educated people send their life's savings to someone they had never met in person because they thought they were in love," said Maj. David Relph, director of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, in a news release.

"And once that money is sent, it is almost impossible to get it back. These scammers typically operate in foreign countries, making it exceedingly difficult to track them down."

The top 15 scams now targeting the Lehigh Valley and beyond

State police offer the following reminders to prevent sweetheart scams:

  • Never wire money to someone you have not met in person. Scammers use wire transfer services like Western Union because the transactions are difficult to trace. Other methods include prepaid credit cards and gift cards.
  • Take it slow. A new romance is certainly exciting, but be wary of someone who says they are "falling in love" after a handful of online conversations.
  • Talk to your family and friends. A scammer will likely come up with a reason why the relationship must be kept secret. A trusted friend or relative may be able to offer valuable perspective and spot red flags you have missed.
  • Do your research. Scammers will often use stolen pictures and information to create their online persona. A simple Internet search may yield multiple profiles with similar photos and information.
  • Trust your instincts. Don't be afraid to speak up if something doesn't feel right. If you think you have fallen victim to a sweetheart scam, report it to police.

"People fail to report these types of crimes because they are embarrassed or ashamed, but simply stopping the flow of cash isn't enough," Relph said. "Once they have gained access to personal or sensitive information, scammers have been known to continue targeting their victims through blackmail and identity theft."

Those who think they may be victim of the "Sweetheart Scam" are urged to contact their local police department.

Pamela Sroka-Holzmann may be reached at pholzmann@lehighvalleylive.com. Follow her on Twitter @pamholzmann. Find lehighvalleylive.com on Facebook.

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