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(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 Romancescams.org, 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.
- They need help paying for holiday gifts.
Registered nurse Jan Miller, a mother of three, met a man online a few years ago and was hooked. He claimed to be a single dad in Seattle who was originally from Spain.
"He was nice and charming, and it was as if the conversation had become addicting," Miller says. "I told myself he has to be real, because why would anyone spend that much time talking to someone if they were not real?"
This went on for three months and then ramped up, she says. The man said he was going to London on business and that started six months of daily conversation, including phone calls. During these conversations, the man described a series of misfortunes that he drained his funds. Miller says she offered money several times.
"I am not an ignorant person. I am educated and intelligent," Miller says. "In my mind, it seemed like the reasonable thing to do. We were friends and this man was in need and I was able to help."
When it didn't appear as though he was going to return to the U.S., a friend suggested that she was being scammed - an idea that seemed absurd to her at first but one she eventually came to grips with. The man was not in Seattle or London, but was part of a team in Nigeria working from a script. Miller now volunteers her time to help others who have fallen victim to this scam.
Pete Ziverts, a Western Union vice president, says the company is trying to combat these sorts of scams by increasing awareness and increasingly flagging suspicious transactions. Hundreds of complaints a month about romance scams are logged, he says. They originate from relationships forged on all sorts of websites, whether traditional dating sites or those that bring together people with similar interests. It can take months of online dialogue or even phone calls to build trust deep enough to get the victim to give up money.
"All scams have an emotional hook to them," Ziverts says. "Relationship scams are obviously so much more emotional. It's amazingly cruel."
John Breyault, vice president of the National Consumers League, says romance scams are not the most reported, but are among the costliest to victims. "The victims are being taken for more money than other scams," he says. The time investment is for a reason, he adds: "They wouldn't do that if there wasn't a big payoff in the end."
To avoid falling victim to this scam, the usual advice applies: Do not send money to someone you don't actually know. Be suspicious of an online relationship that appears to be progressing too fast. Pay particular attention to what the other person says and does. Can you easily reach them by phone to talk?
"Certainly these scams succeed because too many people overlook red flags," Ziverts from Western Union says.
If you suspect you're involved with someone trying to scam you, break off contact immediately and notify the site you met the person and file a report on IC3.gov, the government's online crime complaint site.
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.
Editing by Beth Gladstone