PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Jane Austen once wrote, “I may have lost my heart, but not my self-control.”
She was making a joke at the time, but it’s good advice this Valentine’s Day to not lose more than your heart to online scammers.
“I felt a real soul connection with him right away,” one person said in an FBI interview. “And we sang to each other, we prayed with each other.”
It can start with a comment or message and turn into a flame. But experts say be wary of this flame.
“So what they do is they search out vulnerable women, generally speaking,” said FBI Special Agent Christine Beining. “Men can be targets as well, but it’s generally women, usually above the age of 50.”
But victims can be any age. In 2022, the FBI received more than 19,000 complaints about the romance scam, with victims losing around $740 million. Criminals will often steal photos from real people, oftentimes military, to gain trust, and then message you on dating apps or social media. They’ll make you believe you’re in a loving, trusting relationship with this fake persona.
“They’ll try to endear themselves to the victims,” Beining said. They’ll say whatever the victim wants to hear.”
And then the shoe drops.
“The perpetrator will state that they have an emergency,” she said, “that they need money for a job—maybe overseas—that they have some type of medical emergency, and they need funds.”
A victim, interviewed by the FBI doesn’t show her face or give her name, but was conned out of $2 million.
“He was trying to finish up a job in California and he needed some money to finish that job up,” the victim said. “But one thing kept happening after another. He’d need more money because he was coming in over budget. Things didn’t get done on time. He needed a lawyer.”
And once you give them money, experts say, the floodgates open.
“They will oftentimes be placed on what’s called a ‘sucker list’ and their names and identities are shared with other criminals and they will be targeted for future recruitment,” Beining said.
Even now, knowing she was a victim, the woman who lost her life savings said she still can’t bring herself to believe it was a lie.
“I can’t think of him that way,” the woman said. “My mind keeps me from thinking of him that way because there can’t be a man in this world that could be this horrible.”
Experts said to not share your personal information with anyone and only use reputable dating apps. They also said to research a person’s profile or photos to make sure they haven’t been used somewhere else. And above all, don’t send money to anyone you’ve never met.
If you feel you’ve been a victim, call 1-800-CALL-FBI to file a report and check your bank statements.