Romance scams heat up for the holidays

Thu Dec 22, 2011 11:49am EST
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By Mitch Lipka

(Reuters) - For most people, the holiday season is a time spent with family and friends, but for many it can be a time of intense loneliness. Scammers count on that.

Internet scams don't just come in the variety of a letter from a foreign country seeking funds, or phishing emails that seek to get your credit card information. Romance scams, as they are called, are long-term, romantic relationships that thieves cultivate online with a potential victim, and they are on the rise. Western Union, which is a frequent conduit for money lost to these scams, says faux love is one of the top five most common scams - with a 30 percent increase in complaints registered in November.

Actual numbers on romance scams specifically are hard to come by, but Barb Sluppick, who runs the support and awareness site, says more than 48,000 people have joined her support group (she was nearly victimized herself) since 2005 and more than 17,000 are currently active. The 1,165 people on the site who have revealed how much money they gave up to the scam reported a total loss of $14.1 million - more than $12,000 apiece, on average.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center run by the FBI says most of the scams originate in Nigeria, Ghana, England and Canada. International frauds are difficult to shut down and when money is wired, it is almost never recovered. Complaints are so common, the U.S. State Department has a detailed warning posted to its website that says complaints are received about these scams daily. The victims range in age from 18 to 81 and come from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

"It's a huge problem and we'll never know how big it is," says Sluppick, who explains the shame of falling victim to such a crime - being mocked or blamed prevents reporting by many. "It happens to men, it happens to women. If you are on the Internet and you have an email address and you are open to having a relationship with someone, you can become a victim of this."

Here's how it works. You meet someone in a forum or a dating site. They're friendly, interesting and, most important, interested in you. Conversation - whether in emails, instant messages or phone calls - will continue for weeks, or even months, until a deep enough trust is built to start angling for money. That request could come in a variety of forms, including:

- They need help to pay for their travel to come see you. (Distance is an important component of the scam.)

- They've had a series of costly problems and are in a jam.   Continued...

<p>A woman walks by a car covered in snow in Madrid January 11, 2010. REUTERS/Susana Vera</p>