You set up a profile on a dating site to find love. But that message from a stranger with an attractive profile photo may be the first of many steps that lead to financial ruin, identity theft and credit damage.
Think you’d never fall for a “romance scam” – or that a romance scammer would never get his hands on your Social Security number?
A “many-to-one” attack
Put succinctly, romance scams (often called sweetheart scams) involve “creating the illusion of a relationship to gain trust,” says Michael Bruemmer, vice president of consumer protection at Experian.
Here’s the longer version: The victim creates an online dating profile, and the scammer, with the help of fake photos and a carefully crafted backstory, begins wooing the victim (a better word is “grooming,” Buell says). Because the fraudsters are often part of massive scamming collectives in West Africa, the backstory usually stars the scammer as an American who is awarded a mining or construction contract in, say, Nigeria or Ghana. Hence, the inability to meet face-to-face (although victims will spend hours each day chatting on the phone or online with their pursuers).
Eventually, the victim’s new love starts running into problems. Maybe they need a new laptop but can’t buy from abroad. Maybe they can’t deposit a check while abroad and ask for your bank account details so they can deposit the money (which you will then send to them or a third party). The requests get bigger and bigger (“It’s one calamity after another,” Buell says) until “doctors” are calling you, demanding thousands of dollars to treat your love, who has been “shot.” Buell figured out the ruse when her scammer claimed to have malaria — her desperate searches for hospitals in Ghana on the U.S. embassy website led her to RomanceScams.org.
Scammers are successful because of their sheer numbers. Behind every scammer promising sweet nothings on the phone stands an entire call center of hackers and researchers.
“It’s a many-to-one attack,” Bruemmer says.
Because of this strength-in-numbers approach, scammers can take as long as necessary to groom victims (sometimes years, Buell says) because they’ll often already have several paying victims on the hook. Their success record – and growing pool of victims — has drawn professionals (lawyers, engineers, computer experts) to the trade, according to Buell.
“Unfortunately, in this day and age, especially with the rapid growth of dating sites and the use of the Internet to meet people, the likelihood of being scammed has increased exponentially, especially over the last 24 months,” Bruemmer says.
How romance scams can damage your credit
Losing thousands of dollars to a heartless faker is bad enough. But a far more insidious effect of romance scams is long-term credit damage. How can romance scams contaminate your credit? There are two main paths:
Debt damage: Once you’ve emptied your checking and savings accounts in the name of love, you might turn to credit cards. Sometimes, victims supply scammers with their card numbers for “emergency” purchases. Once the cards are maxed out, with your love “in the hospital” or “in jail,” you might turn to other avenues of financing that you can’t afford.
“We’ve seen victims take out second mortgages,” Buell says. “We’ve seen people file for bankruptcy.”
Maxed-out cards, late payments and bankruptcy pretty much make up the formula for bad credit.
Identity theft: In addition to money, victims will often hand over sensitive personal information. Once a thief has your Social Security number and other information, he can open credit accounts in your name, max them out, neglect to pay and ruin your credit.
Even worse, if thieves suddenly decide you’re not a profitable enough victim, they might simply sell the information they’ve gathered on you.
“So now, instead of one person working your information, you have thousands,” Buell says. “You’re never really safe after that.”
Some might ask: Aren’t we well trained to not give our Social Security numbers away?
“You’re trained never to give your Social Security number away to a stranger,” Buell emphasizes. Thanks to months or years of grooming, the victim no longer regards the scammer as a stranger.
“Imagine your husband asks you for your Social Security number,” Buell says. “That’s the level of trust we’re talking about.”
In some (even sadder) cases, the victim has sent the scammer compromising videos and photos. Armed with these, the scammer can extort more money and information.
“They’ll threaten you,” Buell says. “They can say, ‘I know where you work. I belong to a hacking network. We’ve hacked into your email accounts and will send this video to every single person on your contacts list.’”
Even if you never revealed your Social Security number (willingly or under coercion), you’re not necessarily safe. Buell and Bruemmer emphasize that a thief can cause plenty of damage without it, using:
- Other information: Identity thieves rarely start with all the information they need to steal your complete identity. Scammer collectives have researchers tirelessly combing publicly available information, which they collect in robust databases.
“Just put your name into any search engine and see how much information can be assembled about you,” Bruemmer says. “It could be your name, address, phone number, employer and organizations you’re associated with.”
In conversations with the scammer, you might reveal additional useful tidbits, such as your birth date and even medical conditions.
Once the scam collective has enough, it might impersonate you with an institution that has your most sensitive information. Bruemmer recalls a case in which a thief called a medical center where the victim was receiving treatment, posed as the victim and got an employee to give up the victim’s Social Security number
“It can unravel very quickly, even without someone giving up their Social or passport number or driver’s license number,” Bruemmer says.
- Hacking: In your conversations, you might reveal answers to common security questions, Bruemmer says, including your first car, your mother’s maiden name and your high school mascot. If thieves gain access to your email account, they will get the treasure trove of personal information many of us keep in there (bank account documents, passwords to other accounts and family members’ contact info, for example).
- Your family: Children are about four times more susceptible than adults to ID theft, Bruemmer says. Their credit histories are usually unblemished, and, because they’re not technically supposed to have credit reports yet, nobody is watching over their credit, meaning newly opened accounts may go unnoticed.
For that reason, romance scammers may pursue mothers.
“And who doesn’t like to talk about their kids?” says Bruemmer.
Even innocuous information can lead to child identity theft. Revealing you’re throwing a 10th birthday party for your son, Johnny, reveals name, gender and birth date for example.
In one case Bruemmer remembers, a scammer found a victim on a dating site who told him her son played Little League. The local league website had forgotten to redact Social Security numbers from the enrollment information posted on the website, and the scammer opened up accounts in the child’s name.
How to protect yourself
Signing up for an online dating profile this Valentine’s Day? The following tips will help keep you safe:
- Understand that you’re vulnerable: “Putting yourself out there” is often considered a good thing when it comes to finding love. But it comes with a risk, no matter how reputable the site.
“There is no website out there that [scammers] are not on,” Buell says. “Dating websites do not screen for scammers. They could, but then they couldn’t claim to have 20,000 new members every day.”
- Beware of intense interest, but no contact: If a new online match is coming on strong but won’t (or can’t) meet face to face, it’s a sign of a scam.
“They want to get into a relationship, and things look good, but they’re avoiding face-to-face communication,” Bruemmer says. “That’s a red flag.”
- Look out for ghosts: Scammers use fake names, so Google the names potential love interests give you. If there’s a lack of information out there, they don’t have a profile on the company they claim to work for, or the picture and personal details they give you don’t match their Facebook profile, something’s amiss. Don’t ask the scammer to try to explain – they’ll be only too happy to. “They might say they’re not listed in the company directory because they’re on special assignment,” Bruemmer says. “Stuff that sounds logical.”
If you’re already deep into a romance scam, take these steps to staunch the damage:
- Break ties stealthily: Because scammers threaten victims who catch on to them, “block all connections quietly and permanently,” Buell says. Block them on Facebook (and report their profile), deactivate your dating profile and change your phone number. Close all bank accounts they may have access to (and notify your bank you’ve been victimized when you open new ones).
- Check your credit (and all financial accounts): Look at all three of your credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com. Look at bank statements and your mobile phone account. A credit-monitoring service (which will inform you when a new account is opened with your Social Security number) may be helpful here, Bruemmer says. Often, such services also guide you through which steps to take.
- Put a fraud alert on your credit (or freeze it): Freezing your credit will prevent new accounts from being opened in your name. If you need access to new credit, though, it may not be practical. Another option is to put fraud alerts on all three of your credit reports. Fraud alerts compel creditors to notify you when someone applies for credit in your name. It’s an imperfect system, but a layer of protection nonetheless. Whatever you do, do it the moment you find out you’re embroiled in a romance scam – even if you don’t think a scammer has enough personal information on you.
“Quick action is better than waiting to see if something will happen,” Bruemmer says.
If you suspect you or a loved one is being victimized by a romance scammer, get in touch with RomanceScams.org.
For more tips, Bruemmer provided us with the following infographic, from ProtectMyID, Experian’s credit-monitoring arm: