It's Valentine's Day. How much do you know about the object of your affections?
If it's an online relationship, keep a firm grip on your wallet or purse.
Consumers lost $50 million to romance scams in 2011, with the average victim losing more than $8,000, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center.
Romance schemes account for an estimated 20 percent of all known scam attempts, according to MoneyGram, a global money-transfer company. It said 18 percent of the scams in Pittsburgh are romance-related and local victims lose an average of $742 each time they send money to their "beloved."
Kim Garner, senior vice president of Global Security and Investigations for MoneyGram, said romance scams typically begin in an online environment -- dating websites, widow/widower message boards, etc. -- with the scammer quickly professing love for the victim.
Ah, yes, love at first byte.
After winning the victim's trust, scammers ask the victims for financial help to overcome a series of "misfortunes" that suddenly have befallen them:
Their car was wrecked overnight by a hit-and-run driver and the insurance company won't pay for the damages.
They've been diagnosed with a serious medical condition and need surgery immediately.
They've lost their job.
Or -- and this one is designed to really tug at the heartstrings -- they want to see the victim and they need money to cover travel expenses.
If the victim follows the scammer's directions to send money through a wire transfer, they never hear from the scammer again and there's no way to recover the money.
But some crooks are so brazen that they contact the victim repeatedly for more money. That's how some victims lose more than $8,000, on average, before they realize they've been taken.
Ms. Garner, a former Secret Service agent, said the amorously inclined should realize that it's not a good sign if:
• The online conversation is replete with spelling and grammatical errors. Romance scammers often are located overseas and don't have a good command of English.
• A profile photo doesn't match the alleged age, height, weight, geographic location and/or ethnicity of the "suitor."
• A "suitor" doesn't provide his or her contact information or claims not to have a phone.
• A "suitor' professes love within a matter of days.
"Don't fall for a scam in the hopes of falling in love," Ms. Garner cautions consumers. "Pay attention to the warning signs and push back if you suspect a scam. Listen to your instincts and don't be intimidated or shy. And if the topic of money comes up, end the conversation immediately."
She said 60 percent of the victims are women between the ages of 45 and 65. Many of them are widows. Male victims range in age from 50 to 65.
If female victims hesitate about wiring money, their "suitors" may attempt to bully them or make them feel guilty by asking, "Don't you love me?" or stating, "If you loved me, you would do this." And, if a suitor persuades a woman to make and send him a sex tape, he can threaten to put it on the Internet if she doesn't wire him money.
To legitimize the need to send money, scammers coach their victims to tell MoneyGram agents that they are married instead of saying they are engaged or dating. Fortunately, MoneyGram agents have been trained to tactfully elicit more information from the victims about the recipients of the wire transfers. The agents then can run the recipients' names though the company's data system and put on hold any questionable transfers so the money can be returned to the victims.
Since May 2010, Ms. Garner said, MoneyGram has prevented millions of dollars in suspected fraudulent activity and returned that money to consumers. She emphasized that consumers "should never wire money to someone they don't know."
No matter how foolish or embarrassed victims may feel about being scammed, she urged them to report it to local police, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Consumers League and, if the scam was committed online, to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Information: www.moneygrampreventfraud.com; 1-800-666-3947.
Lawrence Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and 412-263-1895. Please include your name and day, evening and/or cell phone number(s). Due to volume, he cannot respond to every email or phone call.