Sweetheart Scams: How To Protect Your Heart And Your Wallet

Valentine’s Day is that magical (and slightly over-commercialized) day in which we celebrate the gift of love and romance. Unfortunately, it also brings about scams aimed at exploiting a lonely heart.

The Sweetheart Scam is one of the most popular ways of defrauding unsuspecting and vulnerable individuals for financial gain. It’s a scheme that can be perpetrated online, by mail or in-person. The scammer uses the guise of love and romance, to bilk money from the unsuspecting person—oftentimes a lonely senior. A web is craftily spun using lies and deceit to manipulate and entangle the emotions of their unwitting prey.

The illusion of love is the key dynamic that drives the sweetheart scam. Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear told ABC News affiliate WKRN that Valentine’s Day is when “catfishing” tends to become more aggressive because fraudsters know that’s the day “when we all could be a little lonely.”

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) along with other law enforcement agencies are warning the public to be particularly alert when using online dating and matchmaking services as this is the method of choice for manipulators. According to the BBB’s Scam Tracker, sweetheart scams have cost victims more than $500,000 in losses over the past year. And that figure comes only from incidents that are reported.

Brandi Zaccardi, Vice President of the BBB chapter in Middle Tennessee, recently shared a tale with the local news station of a Tennessee woman who lost money to a man she met on a Christian dating site.

“He really played the part of a sincere Christian, even calling me to pray with me over the phone before bedtime,” explained the victim in her letter to the BBB.

The BBB has advised anyone dating online or even in person to watch for the following red flags:

Professes love for you extremely quickly
Refuses to meet in person
Asks to leave the protections of a legitimate dating or social media site and communicate via email, text or instant messenger
Wants to keep the relationship a secret
Provides information that cannot be verified through an independent online search or through trustworthy sources
Asks that money or gift cards be sent overseas
Solicits sensitive personal or financial information

Often times family members, friends and senior relatives become enamored at the beginning of a new relationship. Emotions are high, their guard low and their thinking is clouded by both the promise of and their intense desire for love. As a friend or loved one it is critical that you are involved and aware of how the relationship is progressing. Authorities provide a few tips for helping to keep them safe:

Be involved. Ask questions–especially with seniors–find out how the relationship is progressing and listen specifically for red flags or those things that just don’t feel right. Find out as much information as possible and insist on meeting this love interest or “special friend” in person.

Do your own research. Find out everything you possibly can about the person. Search the web, conduct a background check, contact their social media connections, their acquaintances and anyone else who may actually know them. Get as much information as possible. The lack of solid information is a definite red flag

Trust your gut. If the person or situation sounds too good to be true–it probably is. If something just doesn’t feel right, go with that feeling.

Act on your concerns. Your friend or loved one may be hurt initially and may instruct you to “mind your own business,” but standing by and watching someone being taken advantage of and emotionally wounded is not an option. Elicit help and/or contact the appropriate authorities when necessary.

At the end of the day, common sense reigns supreme. Use common sense and err on the side of caution when dealing with strangers, both online and in-person, to avoid becoming a victim.

Consumer Expert Denise Hill

Denise is currently a writer and editor for a federal agency in Washington, DC. She is an open-minded free spirit always ready for new adventures. She enjoys traveling and relishes being exposed to alternate points of view. Faith, family and finances are the core of her value system. She follows her own path and marches to her own beat. She is a dream chaser and with her husband and best friend by her side, she plans to take over the world.