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Romance scams target aging Baby Boomers; stalk your online date first?

Untrue Love

ERIN E. ARVEDLUND, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
POSTED: Sunday, July 5, 2015
Close to retirement and ready to date again?

First, listen to Barbara Sluppick’s tale.

She logged into her online-dating account and up popped an instant message. Head over heels in love, a man had written: “I saw your profile, I knew you were the one angels sent me!”

He was British and lived in Arizona.

“We chatted online for about three weeks,” she recalls. He phoned, begging to visit, but couldn’t access his British bank account. Could she help him?

“As soon as I heard his voice, I knew he wasn’t British. He was Nigerian.” Sluppick recognized the accent from one of her Nigeria-born friends at work.

“You’re not who you said you are,” she snapped.

Sluppick, a grandmother, had been romance-scammed.

As baby boomers and retirees venture online to date, they’re falling in love with frauds in record numbers.

Romance scammers specifically target Americans age 50 and up and robbed them of an estimated $82 million in the last half of 2014 alone. Most dating fraudsters operate from Russia, Malaysia, and Africa.

It’s gotten so bad that senior lobbying group AARP wants online dating sites to install stronger antifraud measures, circulating a petition among its members (https://action.aarp.org).

AARP members even complain about scam artists on AARP’s partner dating site, called HowAboutWe.com. (Many dating sites take little legal responsibility for policing scammers.)

Sluppick, who lives in Rockaway Beach, Mo., created a website, RomanceScams.org, to counsel the defrauded. A decade later, she and her volunteers can barely keep up with victims from all around the United States.

Sometimes, the family of those scammed online ask her to intervene and exposer the fraudster.

“And the smarter the victim,” she notes, “the harder it is to convince them they’re being scammed.”

The average loss: $100,000.

Algorithmic relief. AARP wants online dating sites to screen photos for facial recognition; scrub subscribers for suspicious multiple accounts, bizarre language, and fake profiles; and issue alerts to those contacted by someone using a fraudulent profile.

Currently, Zoosk.com offers photo verification for its dating site.

To protect yourself, do a little online stalking of your own. Download your date’s picture, then paste it into Google’s “search by image” to see if that person’s photo shows up in other places under a different name. That’s a sign of a scam artist.

So is bad spelling. Paste a potential suitor’s love notes online to see if the words pop up elsewhere or on romance-scam sites.

Women and men. The FBI ranked romance scams among the nation’s top frauds in 2014. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) says women suffer 82 percent of the financial losses; males, the remaining 18 percent.

Among top states for victim losses, Pennsylvania ranked fifth in the nation; New Jersey was No. 8. (No.1 was California.)

In Pennsylvania, men and women 60 years and older lost $3.4 million and $3.2 million, respectively, last year.

Not in uniform. Dating a soldier stationed overseas? Be advised: Real military personnel don’t use Western Union or Money Gram. All military have direct deposit to Stateside banks, too.

“Stop sending money to persons on the Internet who claim to be in the U.S. military,” said Chris Grey, an Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman.

“It is heartbreaking to hear stories of people who have sent thousands of dollars to someone they have never met and sometimes have never even spoken to on the phone,” he says.

Grey maintains a database of fake military documents that romance scammers use to trick victims (www.cid.army.mil/romancescam.html). Military Romance Scams has a useful Facebook page where you can ask questions about servicemen and -women you are matched with online.

Don’t give out your last name, address, or where you work until long after you’ve met your date, says Amy Nofziger, director of AARP’s Fraud Watch Network.

Turn off your phone’s location settings so no one can see where you are. And be cautious of people who claim the romance was destiny or fate, or that if you don’t send money or help, you don’t love them.

Post-scam. Sluppick supports victims of romance scams, helping them heal from their experience and educate the public. Entirely run by volunteers, her support group (groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/romancescams/info) has more than 60,000 members.

If you’ve been scammed, report your losses to local police, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov), or the Federal Trade Commission online (www.ftc.gov/idtheft) or by phone (1-877-438-4338) or TTY (1-866-653-4261).

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808 @erinarvedlund
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/business/20150705_Untrue_Love.html#Y6TgiWmurBGId32r.99

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