For the love of money: How romance scammers drain bank accounts and break hearts

More than 400 Virginians fell victim to romance scams last year

ROANOKE, Va. – February is the season of love, but it can also be the season of scams if you aren’t careful.

Romance scammers use the promise of love to eventually swindle people like Diane Standish out of their money.

“He had me at ‘It’s a match,’” Standish said. “Four months into it, and he asked me to marry him.”

Standish said the scammer, who she had only talked to online, eventually made off with $270,000 from her.

“Never give anyone money to anyone that you have not met,” Standish said.

Better Business Bureau of Western Virginia Director Julie Wheeler said these dating scams are more common -- and more costly -- than you think.

“There were almost 400 cases reported in Virginia last year, and the losses in Virginia were over $200 million," Wheeler said. “Some things are a couple hundred dollars, but these end up in the thousands.”

Wheeler said that’s because romance scammers are often persistent with their victims, who can let their guard down due to emotional manipulation.

“They get somebody who has fallen for it, and they keep on doing it," Wheeler said. “It has devastated them, well beyond the financial loss, and that’s what makes this so heartbreaking.”

Roanoke Police Detective Jason Moore investigates cyber scams in his city, including some romance scams. Moore said the scammers are usually located far from Virginia, but are still able to make their way into their victim’s hearts.

“The majority of the romance scams all come from overseas,” Moore said. “I’ve actually had victims pay their last rent money to someone they felt they were in love with.”

Moore said in his experience, the scammers target elderly people because they are more trusting and less experienced with the internet.

“When I first started doing this, a lot of elderly people just used it to check their emails," Moore said. "Now, everybody is online.”

Moore added one of the most difficult challenges for investigators is the humiliation victims feel when they realize they have been scammed.

“When you’re scammed, a lot of people take it to heart and are embarrassed by it,” Moore said. "It’s hard to get them to talk about it, and hard to get them to make a police report on top of that.”

The FBI’s Richmond field office is also attempting to make people aware of romance scams. In order to prevent yourself from being scammed, they suggest the following steps:

· Only use reputable, nationally-recognized dating websites; however, be aware that scammers may be using them too.

· Research photos and profiles in other online search tools and ask questions.

· Never provide your financial information, loan money, nor allow your bank accounts to be used for transfers of funds.

· Do not allow attempts to isolate you from family and friends.

· Do not blindly believe the stories of severe life circumstances, tragedies, family deaths, injuries, or other hardships geared at keeping your interest and concern.

· If you are planning to meet someone in person you have met online, meet in a public place and let someone know where you will be and what time you should return home.

· If you are traveling to a foreign country to meet someone, check the State Department’s Travel Advisories beforehand (http://travel.state.gov/), provide your itinerary to family and friends, and do not travel alone if possible.

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