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A whole lot of hanky-panky going on

What makes people susceptible to romance scams?

In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 105 million people were unmarried. That group made up 44 percent of all U.S. residents who were 18 and older. Due to societal and innate pressure regarding relationships, singles can feel lonely, insignificant or lacking because they don't have a partner. And because many individuals seek fulfillment of their social needs through romantic relationships, con artists will always seek to exploit them.

According to FBI data, romance scams cause the highest financial losses among internet-facilitated crimes. The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) cites reports from 12,000 victims of confidence frauds who reported losses of more than $82 million during the last six months of 2014 and nearly $200 million in 2015. The number of victims and loss amounts actually are higher because embarrassed victims often fail to report.

During my six-plus years as a regional bank fraud investigator I've delved into a legion of cases categorized as romance or sweetheart scams. You might believe that only simpletons fall prey to romance hustles, but con artists don't discriminate. Victims are male, female, young, middle-aged, elderly, benighted, well-bred and of various races, creeds and nationalities.

Even the most intellectual among romantic hopefuls often throw caution to the wind at the prospect of entanglement with a courtly seducer. Modern technology makes it incredibly easy for fraudsters to find their prey all over the world via cell phones, online dating websites, social media and email. Unfortunately, in far too many instances the victim's strong social desire for a romantic relationship leads them to a different kind of hanky-panky than they envisioned.

What are romance scams?

The term "hanky-panky" has two definitions: (1) a sexual or romantic activity and (2) dishonest, questionable, underhanded or suspicious activity. In their hearts, unsuspecting victims of romance scams dream of, and long for, the first definition. Instead, they're faced with the reality of the latter definition. The particular details of underhanded romance confidence schemes continue to evolve every year. These plots have little to nothing to do with true romance. The fundamental objective of the fraudster is to gain financial profit at the expense of targeted victims.

In a nutshell, here's how a common scheme works: The fraudster lures the victim with exploited specific details of that person's life. Once communication commences, the swindler quickly professes feelings of love and adoration and often calls the victim sweetheart, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife. At some point, the schemer presents his or her newly professed significant other with fabricated circumstances that make it seem like they need the victim's help. The trickster's state of affairs might require money, access to accounts, plane tickets, electronics, clothing or other types of support from the victim.

The following are examples of romance scams in action.

Face-to-face scams

In the first case we have Rebecca, a college honors student. One day she met a good-looking guy named John as she walked to class and they exchanged pleasantries. He told her he was a fellow student who was new to campus, and after spending a few days getting better acquainted, he quickly started referring to Rebecca as "his girl."

One day at lunch Rebecca noticed that John lacked his usual cheerful demeanor. He said his vehicle had broken down and he'd received a check from his father to cover auto repairs and living expenses. But because he didn't know the name of the auto repair shop, his dad left the payee line blank and mailed the check with instructions to write in the shop's name. But when he presented the check to the auto repair shop they told him they'd only accept a check written for the exact amount of the repair and couldn't give any cash back.

John then asked Rebecca if he could make the check payable to her, let her deposit it into her account and then withdraw the cash for him. Of course she agreed — anything for her boyfriend!

After giving him the cash, Rebecca never saw or heard from John again. Of course, the check was counterfeit, and she was left holding the bag. John wasn't even a student at her university, and he'd reportedly conned at least one other girl.

In a separate case, Brandon, a male in his early 50s, traveled to New Orleans on a business trip. He met a young lady, Suzette, who was staying in the same hotel. They hit it off and spent four nights warming up to each other at various bars and restaurants. After the first night she confided in him that she'd taken the New Orleans trip to get over the depression of being jilted by her previous fiancé. She said she'd love to stay in New Orleans throughout the remainder of his trip, but she could only afford to stay for four days.

They seemed smitten with each other and had agreed to a long-distance relationship following the trip, so Brandon allowed her to stay in his room. On the last day he overslept and almost missed his flight. Brandon rarely overslept, even after having a few drinks the night before. He was surprised to find that his new love interest had left his room without waking him or leaving a note. He tried phoning her but didn't get an answer, so he left several messages.

After returning home Brandon discovered several thousands of dollars had been withdrawn from ATMs in New Orleans. You guessed it — he hadn't made the withdrawals. Suzette still hadn't responded to any of his calls, leaving him with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He reported the fraudulent withdrawals to the bank.

As the investigator assigned to the case, I researched the disputed charges and found that several of them were actually cash-back transactions at a local discount department store. I contacted the store to request information. The loss prevention representative could only release surveillance to law enforcement. So, I asked Brandon if he had a photo of the woman he met on his trip. Luckily he had snapped a cellphone selfie. I emailed the photo to the department store loss prevention representative and he confirmed that the person making the cash-back transactions was the person in the selfie photo. I asked the loss prevention representative to retain the surveillance for law enforcement.

Brandon filed a police report because he was sure she was responsible for all of the unauthorized transactions. Although he'd generously paid for all expenses during their brief time together, he'd never given her his card — nor had he authorized her to use it. His personal identification number (PIN) wasn't written anywhere. However, she likely figured out his birth date because he'd told her his age along with the month and day of his birth. His final conclusion was that she must've slipped something into his drink, which gave her the opportunity to take the card, make the withdrawals, return to the hotel room and replace the card without waking him.

Scamming from a distance

The first two scenarios involved face-to-face meetings with the scammers. However, in most online dating scams the victim and the charlatan never physically meet. The scammer — using a phony profile name, photo and details — initiates contact with his mark via an online dating site, chat room or social media platform. Then he or she immediately urges the victim to use a more private mode of communication such as text messaging, phone calls, instant messaging or email.

Victims have reported online dating relationships in which the scammer claimed to be in the military, working on an oil field, or as a developer overseas or in a different state. In each case, the fraudster said he planned on marrying his victim when he returned in a few months. He'd ask for her bank account data to have his payroll credited to her account via direct deposit so they'd have funds to start their new life together. However, he'd also ask the victim to send him a debit card to cover limited expenses in the meantime. Each victim provided her account data and sent a debit card to her beloved fiancé. However, no direct deposits credited the accounts. Instead, the fraudsters deposited counterfeit checks made payable to the victim into each account via mobile phone deposits and then drained the accounts via ATM withdrawals before the unsuspecting women realized what was going on.

Common romance scam indicators

Recognizing the red flags of romance scams is key to not becoming a victim. The following are some common romance scam indicators:

  • A newly acquainted romantic suitor professes love after a very short period of time.
  • The suitor asks for or indicates that he or she or a family member needs some type of assistance, which requires money, account access or material goods.
  • An online romantic suitor has a profile that seems too good to be true.
  • The online suitor claims to be in the military or working overseas.
  • A romantic suitor immediately asks personally identifiable information such as address, date of birth, place of employment or parent's names.
  • The suitor has no close friends or family to turn to in times of need. The victim is apparently the only one they can count on.
  • The suitor provides inconsistent details. Fraudsters often con multiple victims at a time and might get details confused. For instance, in later communications they might give a different birth date than they provided days or weeks earlier.

What can we do to combat this type of fraud?

The massive number of individuals feeling social deprivation, the ease of technological communication and the criminal expertise of savvy fraudsters all set the global stage for a whole lot of hanky-panky. At networking events I often come in contact with various members of the fraud-fighting profession who share countless stories that resemble the ones described in this article. Bank fraud investigators, law enforcement professionals, attorneys, DHR caseworkers, accountants and the list goes on — we're all confronted with the pervasive issue of sweetheart scams. I'm convinced that our greatest weapon against this issue is education. We must tirelessly continue to educate the public through seminars, conferences, conversations, publications and all other viable platforms. "When you know better, you do better."  

Dorothy Riggs, CFE, is the regional fraud investigator at Synovus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her email address is: