North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has message for lonely hearts who are looking for love this Valentine’s Day: Be wary of so-called sweetheart scams.
Online scams in which con artists dangle promises of love to win victims’ trust and steal their money are on the rise in the state, Cooper said Wednesday.
The Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division last year logged complaints from 25 victims of sweetheart scams who lost a total of $2 million. In 2011, the division heard from 17 victims who lost nearly $700,000 to scammers.
“These days, many people look for companionship online, and con artists know it,” Cooper said. “Sweetheart scammers are using websites to meet, woo and romance their victims out of money.”
In the days before social media, sweetheart scammers did their dirty work in person, Cooper said. But the rise of dating websites has made it easier for con artists to exploit people.
Based on complaints filed with the Consumer Protection Division, sweetheart scammers usually approach their victims online, expressing an interest in getting to know the person. They follow up with long online conversations designed to convince the victim that the romance is real. Eventually, the scammer will claim to have an emergency while traveling or working overseas, and will ask the victim to wire money.
Cooper said some victims will repeatedly wire money without realizing they are being scammed until a bank or wire company steps in.
Both men and women are victims of sweetheart scams, Cooper said, but seniors are especially vulnerable. Ten of the 25 consumer complaints last year came from senior citizens, including one woman from Lexington who lost more than $1 million to a man who found her on Facebook and made her believe he was a Charlotte native working in Africa.
Cooper said sweetheart scammers are usually overseas, and his office works with international authorities to catch them. He said the Consumer Protection Division has intercepted thousands of dollars and last year stopped three seniors from flying to other countries to hand-deliver cash.
“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.
He said online daters should never send money to a stranger or give out personal information. Anyone who suspects they are dealing with an online scammer should contact the office by calling 1-877-566-7226 or file a complaint online.