Don't Let Your 'Sweetheart' Scam You Online

Identity Theft Alert

New to town after getting PCS orders? Looking to meet other singles in your area? Maybe your long work hours keep you from an active social life? Many singles are turning to the Internet in search of the perfect love.

Many people can attest to successful online experiences, but keep in mind, this is not always the case. Anytime you're online, it is important to protect your computer, your identity and your personal information -- not to mention your money.

Whether it's a sweetheart scam, work-from-home scheme or some other type of fraud, the bad guys have the same goal, says Tom Shaw, vice president of enterprise financial crimes management and USAA's identity theft officer. They pinpoint victims, develop trusting relationships and then convince the victims to wire cash to a third party or to give up their personal information.

Who's at Risk

In 2013, nearly 1 million more adults fell victim to identity fraud than in 2012, according to the Javelin Strategy & Research 2013 Identity Fraud Report. In the United States, one incident of identity fraud happens every three seconds.

While experts say anyone can become a target of identity theft and online scams, a few characteristics can make you more vulnerable.

Are You an Easy Target?

Looking for love online? You could become a victim of a "sweetheart scam," with fraudsters trying to manipulate you into transferring them money or providing information to help them steal your identity.

"We've seen an increase in sweetheart scams," Shaw says. "Although many dating websites have fraud detectors to help monitor for scams, fraudsters will attempt to move conversations to other outlets off the dating website, such as email or instant messaging, in order to avoid detection." Red flags can include claims of a crisis, such as a lost credit card, by your "sweetheart" who claims to be traveling internationally.

Western Union puts a warning on its send forms and advises customers to send money only to people they have met in person. Shelley Bernhardt, director of consumer protection at Western Union, says criminals cultivate trust in these relationship schemes.

"Fraudsters craft extremely plausible stories to get unsuspecting individuals to part with their funds," Bernhardt says. "The best defense is to be aware of consumer fraud before a scammer approaches, remember to only send money to people you have met in person and always verify an emergency situation before sending money."

Desperate to find a job? You may leap at the chance to earn money working from home. But if you've only met your boss online, you could be pulled into a "money-muling" scam. Don't ignore the signs that something's amiss. USAA financial crimes analyst Monica Alcala says when she called to inform one customer that she'd been wired stolen funds for her work-from-home job, the woman didn't want to believe the truth. "She just kept saying, 'But I need that money to pay my mortgage,'" Alcala says.

Active social media user? If you share a great deal of personal information online, you could attract scammers. In fact, in its 2012 survey, Javelin reported that "LinkedIn®, Google+®, Twitter® and Facebook® users had the highest incidence of fraud, although there is no proof of direct causation.

Look for Warning Signs

When it comes to online dealings, always be wary. USAA's Shaw recommends calling it quits with an Internet boss or dropping an online love interest if you see any of these red flags:

  • Your boss or sweetie asks you to open a bank account and then instructs you to send or receive money, keeping a portion for yourself.
  • You are solicited to participate in a mystery-shopping program by completing electronic funds transfers and keeping a portion as your fee.
  • You receive notification that you won a lottery or sweepstakes that you never entered. You're told a check will come in the mail, and you can wire money back to cover the lottery taxes after you deposit it.

Beware of the Consequences

Some scam victims face prosecution for their activities. Even if they don't, other potential consequences for taking part in such schemes -- even without knowing it -- can be severe. The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team warns of these potential consequences:

  • Inaccessible bank accounts. During an investigation, your accounts could be frozen, cutting off access to your money.
  • Accountability for charges. In some cases, victims must repay losses.
  • Personal information at risk. In many schemes, criminals collect personal information they may use for other fraudulent reasons.

In addition to these potential problems, you also could be putting your computer at risk, exposing it to malware by giving strangers access via online job applications and tax forms, Shaw warns.

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