In today's wired world, online dating is one the fastest ways to meet new people. You can access millions of profiles for singles willing to put their money where their heart is, but like anything, there's a dark side where scammers take unsuspecting men and women for an emotional and financial roller coaster.
"People make poor decisions when they're emotionally attached to something and online scammers are getting more and more creative with the way that they are getting a hold of your information and your money," says Kathy Graham, CEO and president of the Better Business Bureau of Coastal Carolina.
The business of love is booming, but the companies aren't the only ones looking to cash in. Scammers are lurking within these dating profiles, waiting to pounce.
It starts out with a simple message. They gain your trust, shower you with affection, all while fishing for your weakness so they can capitalize on it.
Graham says, "They're going to play on that emotion to get your money."
We launched a joint investigation with the Better Business Bureau. WMBF Anchor Heather Biance created a profile as "beachbabe_jules" and within hours the inbox was flooded with messages. While the profile got a lot of cyber traffic, it wasn't pursued by an online predator.
The BBB, on the other hand, started investigating a different case last month after a local woman tipped them off. According to online records, the man goes by "Alfred Worth" or "Bob Williams." He has three Facebook profiles, two different names and a variety of photos. On a separate dating site, Plenty of Fish, the same man appears as "aworth22" and claims he's an environmental engineer.
In chat messages with Biance's fake profile set up for "Julianna," he qualifies for every red flag under the sun. He's quick to develop a relationship, says he's from Tabor City, North Carolina but is currently working overseas and has very poor spelling and grammar.
An example of a chat:"I want to send you something for the Mothers day" and "can you do me a favour?"
Less than a month after the correspondence begins, "Alfred" asks "Julianna" to fill out a document making her his next-of-kin. He told her it was because he cared for her and was planning long term.
On it, the document asks for personal information like an address and date of birth.
Biance showed the chat and document to Graham, asking, "Is this a scam?"
"In my opinion. It absolutely is a scam," she warned.
Just moments after speaking with Graham, Biance, or "Julianna" to the online dating world, received a message from "Alfred." This message was the biggest red flag of them all as the man started chatting about his money problems saying his "consignment [of oil] had been trapped in Libya by rebels."
A few minutes later, we set up a phone call with "Alfred," and as soon as he answered, Graham took the lead.
She asked how much money the man needed. He starts out requesting $30,000, but quickly dropped it to $20,000.
During the call, Graham played along, asking, "How do you want me to do this? I can probably get a hold of $10,000."
The man on the phone immediately started spilling specific instructions on how to wire the cash.
"You really think you have a bond. You think you are communicating with someone that you could have a future with and all the while, all they want to do is get in your bank account," says Graham.
Instructions did not stop on the phone. Seconds after getting off the call, a chat message popped up with the account information for the man's bank in Liverpool. He even prepped us on what to say to the bank teller when they ask why we're wiring money.
"When they ask you some silly question there, just tell them it's for your personal business :)" the man instructed.
Of course we did not send the money, but the problem is, a growing number of people each year do.
"And I tell you once your identity is stolen once, he's going to sell it off to 50 different people, maybe a 100 other people. It's something that is so hard to recover from," warns Graham.
Not only is this transaction potentially financially devastating, but it is also dangerous. Remember the "next-of-kin" sheet the man requested? If you were to fill it out or send your address for any reason, this person now knows exactly where you live.
With a simple search of your address on Google maps, they can see what your place looks like and use the information like color of your house or what your street looks like to make you believe they're watching you. The BBB gets reports of these threats all the time, all over the United States.
The biggest lesson here is remembering to trust that gut feeling, and if something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.
If you or someone you know have been a victim of identity theft or you think you've had an experience with a scammer online, you can call your local BBB branch or report it to the FBI's IC3 or Internet Crime Division.
It's important to know that it can be difficult to trace and even prosecute the online thieves, but if it goes unreported, they will simply move on from you and do it to someone else. You could help prevent a crime happening to the next online victim.
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