The FBI has uncovered a new ploy that forces women on online dating sites to pay in order to protect their reputations.
Sandy Chalmers, the division administrator of Trade and Consumer Protection with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said scammers targeting online dating sites is nothing new. She said the average victim will lose $15,000 to $20,000, according to the FBI.
"By the time the relationship has gotten to that point, the victim doesn't realize he or she is a victim," Chalmers explained. "And there's so much trust on that person on the other end that they wire the money."
The latest scam involves less-common tactics of getting money from victims. Chalmers said the crooks target divorcees and widows over the age of 40. Women ages 50 to 59 are the most attractive to these criminals because they likely have a stable financial situation.
The scam artists will connect with the victim on a dating website but convince that woman to chat on a social network site where they cannot be monitored or reprimanded for fraud.
"If your online sweetheart wants you to leave the dating site and start instant messaging or email, that's a red flag," Chalmers said. "And, of course, once that pitch for money is made, especially if the request is for you to wire money, that's where you should stop everything."
When conversations get intimate, the scammer posts that back-and-forth along with photos and phone numbers and then claims that the victim is a "cheater." The woman is sent a link to that information and told she has to pay $99 for it to be taken down.
"That gets into extortion, that kind of threat, and that's definitely when you want to get the FBI involved," Chalmers said.
After the victim pays the scammer, there is no indication that anything is removed from the Internet.
"Sometimes you have to go through trial and error and sometimes fall victim to this sort of thing," Brit Grimmer said.
Grimmer was scammed by two women on www.plentyoffish.com. The first asked for bank account information and his home address to send a sealed package from overseas. Grimmer said he didn't fall for that scheme, but he bought another woman a ticket from Florida to Madison. When she arrived at the bus station where they were set to meet, she thanked Grimmer for the free trip and left with another man.
"You're going to believe the things that they tell you and the lies that they feed," Grimmer said.
Grimmer advised anyone, man or woman, to be wary of people who share too much information on dating sites.
"It's just best to not reveal your personal life, and it's also best to stay away from people on their profiles who reveal a lot of their personal life," Grimmer said.
After six months of scanning the site for scammers, Grimmer found his wife.
DATCP gave these warning signs that an online sweetheart might be a scammer:
• Claims to be from the United States but is currently "traveling," "deployed with the military" or "working overseas"
• Professes love for you almost instantly
• Asks you to leave the dating site and communicate by personal email or instant messages
• Requests that you send personal information including Social Security, bank account or credit card numbers
• Asks you to cash checks for him/her
• Makes excuses for not meeting in person, such as last-minute financial, medical or family emergencies
"Once that pitch for money comes, just stop right there and realize that you may have been victimized, and just cut it off," Chalmers said.
For additional information or to file a complaint, people can visit the Consumer Protection Bureau at datcp.wi.gov. People can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Consumer Protection Hotline toll-free at 1-800-422-7128.