Online romance scams break hearts, empty wallets; $1B lost in last 3 years, study finds

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Dreams of romance can lead to broken hearts and broken bank accounts. So-called "romance scams" are responsible for nearly $1 billion in personal losses in last three years.

"I liked bantering with him," says Annette who spoke with Jason Knowles of the ABC 7 I-Team.

Annette, who lives in the northwest suburbs, fell for just such a fraudster. The potential suiter emailed her saying, "Even though we have not met, it's okay my dear I understand you clearly ...I know what is meant to be will definitely be."

Annette, who did not want to use her last name, was opening up her heart. She now thinks that she was slowly being groomed with emotional words to open up her wallet. Not with just one or two, but with three different men.

"I went online because it's been a long time since I have been on the dating scene. I don't go to church and I don't go to bars," Annette said. "All they have to do is say I really like your profile you seem like a very nice person, I'd like to get to know you better."

Annette said the most recent love interest quickly moved the conversation from the dating platform to text messages and personal email.

"I wanted to try and contact him with web cam, he said he didn't have that capability in wherever he was located in England," Annette explained.

Then she got a message eventually asking her to click on a mysterious link to view the man's "account."

"I don't know what would happen when I clicked on that account," she said. "He just wanted me to look and see if money had been transferred into his account."

Annette didn't click on that phishing link but reported her incidents to the Better Business Bureau. The BBB and tech experts say links like the one Annette received are likely a gateway for hackers to gain access to your computer, or even your banking information.

"In the last three years the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has found over a million people have been victimized for over a billion dollars, so it's a billion dollar problem," said Steve Bernas from the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois.

In December, seven Chicago-area residents were arrested and charged by federal investigators in a romance scam. In 2016, Olayinka Sunmola pleaded guilty in the Southern District of Illinois federal court, admitting that he had bilked dozens of women. The scheme, the feds said, allowed him to live a lavish lifestyle.

A recent BBB and Federal Trade Commission report estimates about 500,000 of the 3.5 million profiles scanned by experts every month, are bogus.

"One thing we suggest consumers do is take that picture and do a reverse Google search. We've done that for many of the pictures and they end up on thousands of websites, the same picture," said Bernas. "The same good-looking man or the same good-looking women appears on thousands of fraudulent websites."

An Iowa woman, who doesn't want to reveal her identity, lost more than 100 grand in a romance scam.

"Emailing back and forth and it went to texting and after some time, I fell for him," she said, hoping to warn others.

She said she'd like to ask him, "Why are you doing this to people? You're just wrecking their lives, wrecking their lives big time."

Annette said that now when she looks back, she can see the warning signs, like one specific strange message that said 'my number isn't working yet; as soon as it does I will message you.' And then there was the bad grammar and poor spelling.

Experts say to beware of overly romantic language followed by a sense of urgency to hand over money.

"It's usually a situation of dire consequences, it's whether they have cancer, or whether they have a severe sickness, where they have to get home quickly visit a relative," Bernas warned.

Annette said the experience has changed her.

"It was a waste of my time. I can't think I'll ever go back to any of those sites," she said.

Experts say if you are interested in someone on a dating website, you may want to talk on the phone first, have a video chat or meet in a public place sooner rather than later, so you know they are the real deal.

The BBB says many of the scammers are overseas and will try to keep the conversation on a text app or email until they can cash in. The bottom line is, never give money to anyone you're only talking to online.
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