High-profile cases of online relationship fraud grab headlines. Just consider the incredible story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o and his Internet "girlfriend." But online scams of all kinds happen to everyday Janes and Joes -- people of all ages and at all stages of life.
Such cautionary tales show how important it is to protect your computer, your identity and your personal information -- not to mention your money.
Whether it's a sweetheart scam, work-from-home scam 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 a victim, develop a trusting relationship and then convince the victims to wire cash to a third party or give up personal information.
Who's at Risk
In 2012, about 1 million more adults fell victim to identity fraud than in 2011, according to the Javelin Strategy & Research 2013 Identity Fraud Report. That's 12.6 million victims in the U.S. last year, or 1 every 3 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?
Eager to find love online? You could become a victim of a "sweetheart scams," with fraudsters trying to manipulate you into transferring them money or providing information to 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 offline 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 only send money to people they have met in person. Christian Hinckle, senior manager of global 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," says Hinckle. "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 every emergency situation before sending money."
Desperate to find a job? You may leap at the chance to earn money working from home. But if it's for a boss you've only met online, you could be pulled into a "money-muling" scam. Don't ignore the signs that something's amiss.
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."
Elderly? You may enjoy interacting with people online. Fraudsters hope this means you are overly trusting, making you easy prey to schemes.
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 and receive money, keeping a portion for yourself.
- Someone solicits you 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 your check will come in the mail and once you deposit it, you can wire money back to cover the lottery taxes.
Beware of the Consequences
Some scam victims face prosecution for their activities. But even if they don't, the other potential consequences for taking part in such schemes -- even without knowing it -- can be severe. The federal 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're also putting your computer at risk, exposing it to malware by giving strangers access via online job applications and tax forms, warns Shaw