Online dating scams harm ‘thousands’ in Lee County
Thousands of Lee County residents are being victimized by what police call “The Sweetheart Scam.”
The relatively new phenomenon of online dating is at the heart of this scam and it’s costing significant embarrassment and financial pain, said Stacey Payne, Lee County Sheriff’s Office community relations manager. She said as many as 30 percent of all online relationships are artificial emotionally and a potential scam.
“Thousands are harmed every year but I can’t give you a more accurate number than that,” Payne said.
“Nine times out of 10 the victims will not call us. They are very embarrassed. In their mind, they feel this is more embarrassing a scam to fall prey to than the lottery or grandparents’ scam. When talking about romance or relationship of any sort you’re putting yourself on the line and it hits them hard.”
Charlotte County hasn’t seen the scam, said Robert Carpenter of the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office.
“I talked with the head of our Economic Crimes Unit and he said what problem?” Carpenter said. “We have not had a complaint from anyone about being scammed for money from a dating service website. Hope it stays in Lee County.”
Lee County’s aging population and the economics of places such as Gasparilla Island makes these areas a prime target for the online scammers, Payne said.
“Because Gasparilla Island is a wealthy island it would be a target for these scammers,” Payne said. “They know to target the more affluent communities.”
Scammers target individuals over the age of 40 who may be emotionally vulnerable due to a recent divorce or death of a spouse, though all age groups are at-risk, she said. Any online contact could be a criminal sitting in a cyber cafe with a well-rehearsed script that’s being used on thousands of other innocent victims.
“These heartless scammers play on the victim’s vulnerability by declaring their undying love, sending flowers or gifts and promising a fairy tale life together,” Payne said. “They will also use stories of severe life circumstances, family tragedies, injuries to themselves while serving overseas in the military, or other hardships to keep their victims concerned and involved in their schemes.”
As the relationship progresses, scammers ask the victims to send money to help overcome a financial situation they claim to be experiencing.
“These are all lies intended to take money from unsuspecting victims,” Payne said.
Once you give in to the scammers’ siren song, it’s game over. The police will not be able to collect your money or charge the perpetrator, she said.
“Very little can be done because it’s hard to find the perpetrator,” she said. “Once you’ve sent money, it’s gone. If it’s overseas it’s difficult to pursue. The federal government and multiple governments have to become involved.”
If it’s local, it’s tough to pin the crime on the perpetrator, too.
“Oftentimes the victims don’t care they are being scammed — they want that companionship,” Payne said. “Or they don’t believe they’re being scammed. They’re in love. If a person is of sound mind they can give their money to whomever they want to give their money.”
In another scheme, scammers ask victims to receive funds in the form of a cashier’s check, money order or wire transfer, claiming they are out of the country and unable to cash the instruments or receive the funds directly. The scammers ask victims to redirect the funds to them via a money order or by opening a bank account and providing the love interest the bank account number.
Scammers may also ask victims to reship packages instead of redirecting funds. In these examples, victims are instructed to pick up merchandise at a store or shipping outlet, then forward the merchandise to an address, which is usually out of the country. Most likely the merchandise has been purchased online by the scammer with a stolen or fraudulent credit card.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office Fraud Line has received complaints from victims whose online love interests are located in Nigeria, Ghana, England, Russia and Canada.
“The Sheriff’s Office encourages all Internet users who are considering an online romance to remember that scammers will use whatever personal information you provide to quickly paint themselves as your perfect match,” Payne said. “Although these romances can be extremely exciting we urge you to apply common sense over your feelings.”
Another way to avoid online dating scammers is personal contact.
“Avoid social isolation,” Payne said. “Get out. Be among your peers. That really does help.”