Also referred to as a romance scam, the sweetheart scam is a common way for thieves to trick strangers into sending them large amounts of cash. 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.
“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 Major David Relph, director of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation. “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 Pennsylvania State Police offers 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 pre-paid 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,” said Major Relph. “Once they have gained access to personal or sensitive information, scammers have been known to continue targeting their victims through blackmail and identity theft.”
According to the FBI, Americans lost $197 million to romance scams and similar frauds in 2015.