LAURINBURG – “Catfish” is not just an interesting reality television show. For some it is an emotionally painful and sometimes costly reality.
Law enforcement officers here and across the country are working to raise awareness about online romance scams, also called confidence fraud.
Romance con-artists prey on people looking for love, reel them in and then take advantage them. The scammers use the same tools that singles use to find love in order to commit their crimes.
Shay R., who asked that her full name not be used, knows all too well the pain and catastrophe that romance frauds can cause. After her 64-year-old mother, Kay, became home-bound and moved in with her, Shay helped her create a Facebook page to stay in touch with family and meet new people.
Unfortunately one of the people Kay met was a scammer who convinced the elderly woman that he was in love with her. She wound up sending the predator thousands of dollars in cash and gift cards and leaving herself and Shay in a financial quagmire. Her daughter spent months and thousands of dollars covering past due bills and other fallout from Kay’s misadventure.
“He told her he is in the military and was retiring and had to pay his general to retire,” Shay said. “He said he needed more money after that for a plane ticket to come home. I told her a thousand times that the military flies you home.”
The episode even caused an estrangement between the two women because Kay attempted suicide after her daughter tried to keep her away from the man. Despite the financial loss, and emotional turmoil, Kay was still convinced that her scammer loved her and kept in contact with the man.
“It took months financially,” Shay said. “She still texts him. I don’t approve but there is nothing I can really do. She over dosed because of him. But she still insists he loves her.”
Romance scams are prevalent, especially during this time of year, according to the FBI.
Capt. Earl Haywood, chief detective of Scotland County Sheriff’s Office, said the county has been fortunate but fears that catfishing frauds may turn up here at some point.
“We haven’t had any experience with that yet. But that’s not saying that it’s not coming down the pipe because there’s always a new scam every day,” Haywood said.
Haywood believes that people who are looking for relationships might be especially vulnerable to con artists, particularly at this time of year.
“People are online looking for relationships, to meet a significant other with the same interests and hobbies especially with Valentine’s Day coming up; and people will deceive others for their own selfish means,” Haywood said. “These dating sites are a lucrative way for someone looking to catfish somebody who is vulnerable. They know the right things to say and how to draw someone in.”
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center – the IC3 − romance scams are responsible for a majority financial losses compared to other online crimes.
“In 2016, almost 15,000 complaints categorized as romance scams were reported to IC3, nearly 2,500 more than the previous year, and the losses associated with those complaints exceeded $230 million,” said an official with the FBI.
The bureau issued the following tips help keep people from falling victim to romantic scammers online:
− Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere.
− Go slow and ask questions.
− Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or social media site to go offline.
− Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family.
− Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
− Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally.
Haywood adds some hints of his own.
“Ask for more personal information, and go online, gather more information about the person. Compare information they gave about themselves to what they share online on their social media,” Haywood said.
He advises asking the person about friends, coworkers, associates and what area they are from and then trying to find people who actually know the individual.
If the person won’t answer basic questions, it should serve as a warning.
“Don’t be afraid to ask more personal questions. It’s called getting to know someone. That’s information they shouldn’t want to keep secret,” he said.
Haywood also offered some personal safety guidelines if the person actually does want to meet in real life.
“Don’t meet in a secluded area, only agree to day meetings in public places,” he advised. “Always make sure they meet on your terms. If they don’t want to meet on your terms, something’s not right. That’s a big red flag.”
If you believe you are a victim of a romance scam, file a complaint online at ic3.gov or call your local law enforcement office or 911.
Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169