Valentine's Day is a time for love and romance — and it's the perfect opportunity for scamming.
Romance fraud schemes in the United States have accounted for more than 30,000 complaints and $884 million lost in fraud over the past three years, according to a new analysis evaluating love-related scams released by the Better Business Bureau. The study also found no "typical" victims; rather, scammers targeted anyone regardless of gender, age or sexual orientation.
The complaints were either filed with the FBI's Internet Fraud Complaint Center or the Federal Trade Commission. The bureau found scammers often portrayed themselves as military members and were typically operating from areas such as West Africa, Russia or Ukraine.
It also noted, in speaking with one unnamed online dating company, that 500,000, or 14 percent, of 3.5 million profiles it scanned monthly were fake, and that less than 10 percent of all fraud victims report it to either commissions or authorities, citing the FTC.
"Victims are often too embarrassed to report what has happened to them and can be wiped out financially. Emotionally, it is also devastating. Some victims have considered suicide," said Jane Driggs, president and CEO of Better Business Bureau Utah, in a statement. "If you are going to search for a date online, it's vital that you know the person on the other end of the conversation is who they say they are."
One scammer exampled in the study, Olayinka Sunmola, of Nigeria, was convicted of targeting hundreds of women across the U.S. and defrauding them of money online. The man was sentenced to 27 years in prison in 2017, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern Illinois district.
Sunmola would meet his victims on an online dating site, send flowers or chocolates and then ask for money for things like minor family emergencies. The amount of money he would request would then increase with time, even manipulating victims into shipping him computers, tablets and cellphones.
"Sunmola's purpose was to lead each of his victims to believe that he was her 'Prince Charming,' her one true love, and the man with whom she was destined to spend the rest of her life," the district wrote in a statement after the conviction.
The man was also ordered to repay $1.7 million to his victims.
So how can you avoid falling for online scams? Here are some tips from the Better Business Bureau.
Don't send money or information to someone you haven't met in person. Requests for prepaid cards or money transfers are typically red flags, according to the bureau. It also suggests not giving any information through video applications because scammers may use recording devices to save any information.
"Think before going from public to private." If a conversation moves to a private form of communication like direct messaging or email, this may be an attempt to draw you in without others interfering, the bureau advised.
Do research. If it sounds too good to be true, it should be verified, the bureau said. This includes reverse searching images and searching portions of the individual's bio pages.
Ask for other forms of identification, such as a photo of them holding a piece of paper with their username on it. If they claim they are in the military, ask for their military address, as all military email addresses end with @mail.mil, according to the bureau.
Constant poor grammar and spelling repeated may suggest the person is not from where he or she claims to be, the bureau said.
If you feel like you might be a victim, report it to BBB's Scam Tracker, the FTC or the FBI.