Sweetheart scams see increase

Feb. 14, 2013 @ 05:42 AM

Country music singer Johnny Lee might have said it best when he sang the song "Lookin' for Love in all the Wrong Places."

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said Wednesday that there are some scam artists targeting social media and the Internet to lure victims looking for love to steal money.

“These days many people look for companionship online, and con artists know it,” Cooper said, in a release. “Sweetheart scammers are using websites to meet, woo and romance their victims out of their money.”

In 2012, the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's office received reports of 25 different scams where victims lost a combined total of more than $2 million. That is an increase from 2011 where 17 victims reported losing close to $700,000 in "sweetheart" scams.

According to Cooper, "sweetheart" scams first operated in person with con artists pretending to fall in love with lonely people in order to gain their trust and then exploit them financially. The scam has now moved to dating and social media websites such as match.com, seniorpeoplemeet.com, christianmingle.com and Facebook. 

According to complaints filed with the Consumer Protection Division, a sweetheart scammer usually approaches a victim by sending messages expressing an interest in getting to know him or her. This is often followed by long online conversations designed to convince the victim that the new romance is real. Once the relationship is established, the con artist claims to experience an emergency while traveling or working overseas and asks the victim to wire them money. 

Some victims lose hundreds or even tens of thousands of dollars to the scam. Many repeatedly wire money to their so-called beloved, and only realize they’ve been scammed once the wire company or their bank becomes suspicious.

Cooper said that these scams can target men or women of any age but seniors can be special targets, especially if they post information online about a recent tragedy such as the death of a spouse. Of the 25 consumers who complained about sweetheart scams to Cooper’s office last year, 10 were senior citizens.

One such scam involved a Lexington senior who lost more than $1 million to a man who befriended her on Facebook. He led her to believe he was originally from Charlotte but was currently working in Africa. He conned her into repeatedly sending him money overseas, supposedly to cover expenses until he was paid for his contract work and could return to North Carolina to marry her.

Cooper said that many perpetrators of online "sweetheart" scams are usually located overseas.

“If someone you meet online starts asking you for money, even a small amount, that’s a good sign you’re dealing with a scammer,” Cooper said. “Contact my office if you or a loved one may be caught up in a sweetheart scam.”

Consumers can contact the Consumer Protection Division by calling 1-877-5-NO-SCAM or filing a complaint online at www.ncdoj.gov.


Avoiding a "sweetheart" scam

To avoid getting caught in a "sweetheart" scam, the Consumer Protection Division of the North Carolina Attorney General's office suggested these tips:

• Remember, people aren’t always who they claim to be online.

• Never send or wire money to a stranger you meet online. Once the money has been wired, it is highly unlikely you will ever get it back.

• Never give out your personal information to someone you meet online, no matter what the circumstance or why they say they need it.


The Office of the North Carolina Attorney General contributed to this report