Let Your Valentine Steal Your Heart -- but Not Your Money

By Matthew Cochrane Markets Fool.com

Basically, all scams appeal to some combination of two emotions: greed and fear. By playing on these emotions, a good con artist can often convince even the most skeptical people to forgo their better judgement when asked to part with their hard-earned money.

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The typical romance scam, though, is even more sinister: It plays on the victim's lonely heart as well. People tend to think these cons only work on lonely old ladies, but that stereotype is far from factual. As an economic-crimes detective, I have learned that loneliness transcends class, race, age, or sexual orientation.

Image source: Getty Images.

Unfortunately, this kind of sting is fairly common. In 2015, the FBI reported it had received complaints from more than 12,000 victims who had suffered nearly $200 million in losses from this type of scheme. That figure is undeniably low: Many victims never report these crimes because they are too embarrassed and ashamed.

How the scheme works

One of my first cases involving this romance con was a textbook example. The victim was recently divorced with no kids. She was a working professional, quite accomplished and successful in her field. After her divorce, she joined a dating website and found the profile of a user who the site indicated was a good match for her. She reached out to this potential match, and over the following weeks, she thought they had gotten to know each other intimately through a series of emails and texts. Her newfound love interest sent her pictures of himself and his teenage daughter, and he often wrote her love poems.

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The victim was smitten. After a few weeks, her online lover said he was a general contractor a few states away, currently competing for the largest contract in his company's history. After going on for a few days about how excited he was about this opportunity, he dejectedly told her he would not get the job after all: He would not be able to come up with the money he would need to start the job. After all, he explained to her, he would have to pay a larger crew than normal, apply for all the necessary permits, buy more equipment for such a large job, and so on. The costs, he told her, were more than he could handle.

So the victim offered the crook her money to cover the expenses he claimed he needed. Here's the beauty of this crime from the thief's perspective: In the weeks that followed, when she thought to herself that something seemed "off," she would recall that she was the one who had first contacted him, and she had freely offered him money without being asked.

What happened next is predictable. A week or two later, more complications arose, and her beau needed a few thousand more dollars. Remember, a scam artist will never stop asking for money as long as the victim is willing to hand it over!

During this "relationship," the two kept planning to meet, but something always seemed to prevent it. Eventually the victim figured out the ruse and stopped sending money -- but not until she had already wired a five-figure sum to the fraudster.

Sometimes, victims find it so hard to believe they're being scammed that they actually run out of money to send. At this point, they usually experience intense feelings of shame and embarrassment. Research even suggeststhat this type of scam is especially hard to recover from, as the victimes must cope with the loss of money andthe loss of a relationship that to them had felt real and meaningful.

How to avoid becoming a victim

Of course, this is not to suggest that everyone you meet online is a fake who only wants to separate you from your savings. Companies like Match Group have earned multibillion-dollar market caps by running properties like Match.com, OkCupid, and Tinder. Stories abound of happy couples with flourishing relationships who first met online.

So how do you navigate the confusing landscape of modern dating without falling victim to this type of crook? Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. First and foremost, never send money to someone you do not personally know or have not met in person. Remember, once money is wired to a location, that money is gone -- forever! There is no bank that can get it back for you.
  2. Consider it a huge red flag if an online love interest asks for money or even expresses a need for it, no matter the reason or excuse given.
  3. If a person you have met online keeps coming up with excuses not to meet in person, then that should trip your scammer sensors. A crook will generally come up with excuses ranging from unexpected work obligations to family emergencies.
  4. Another silent alarm should ring when your online admirer frequently writes you generic love poems or lengthy descriptions of what your first date might be like. These kinds of messages may indicate that this person is trying to prove that they're serious about being with you, though they're anything but sincere.
  5. Keep in mind that pictures are available in abundance online, and they can be doctored. Don't assume that the pictures your love interest sends you are genuine, as they may in fact portray a different person.
  6. If something ever seems off about an online relationship, consider talking to a trusted friend or family member about the situation. This may be difficult, because nobody wants to hear bad things about their love interests. However, a trusted confidant can bring an objective outside perspective that may help you see the truth and avoid costly mistakes.

Keeping these things in mind will hopefully help you hold on to your money this Valentine's Day. As for whether you should let someone steal your heart...that's a subject well above my pay grade.

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Matthew Cochrane has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Match Group. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.