ST. LOUIS — The search for love can cost you more than time and heartache.
Federal investigators saw a huge increase in the number of romance scams reported over the past year. One of the more high-profile and costly crimes happened in St Louis.
Federal prosecutors said a St. Louis woman in her 60's was swindled out of $1.2 million after falling in love online.
“She went on one of the dating websites and thought she had met someone that she could build a future with,” said Tracy Berry, Assistant US Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri.
While the identity of that St Louis woman has not been made public, Berry explains how the scammers adapted their con to fool her.
“[The scammers] used a LinkedIn profile. They use local universities. They use local things that gave her a sense of comfort, that she was dealing with someone that she wouldn't just have an online relationship with, but that she would be able to meet for coffee or dinner or go to a concert with,” said Berry.
Berry said the victim was conned out of money gradually. She was allegedly told the love interest was in Dubai and needed funds for an emergency. Later on, the alleged scammer claimed he had gotten sick in Dubai and needed money for treatment.
“They do it in bits and pieces. They don't ask for $1.2 million all at one time. They may start with $5,000, $10,000,” said Berry.
Two men from Texas, Rotimi Oladimeji and Olumide Akinrinmade, are now facing federal charges of mail and wire fraud, and identity theft related to that St. Louis case.
And while prosecuting romance scammers doesn't happen often, more than 32,000 incidents of romance scams were reported to the federal trade commission last year.
The growing scam has also caught the attention of congress.
"I was constantly sending him gift cards, even though now I was using up the last of my husband's life insurance. My savings were gone,” said Katie Kleinert, a romance scam victim from Pennsylvania.
Kleinert testified at a recent Congressional hearing involving the Senate Special Committee on Aging about how the romance scammer gained her trust.
“[The scammer] had his kids get in touch with me through email and they started calling me mom, which is my Achilles' heel because I didn't have children of my own,” said Kleinert. “From then, there was always some kind of an emergency or some urgent need for money.”
Growing, profitable scam
Romance scamming netted nearly $300 million in 2020.
The victims hardest hit were between the ages of 60-79.
Berry recommends checking in with any family member involved in an online romance.
“Stop being condescending. Stop saying things that could be interpreted as ‘you think I'm stupid.' Sometimes it might just be sit down with them and say, ‘hey, well, let's look at their Facebook profile’. There's just a way to do it that makes all the difference in the world,” said Berry.
How can you avoid romance scams?
The quickest way to find out if the person you or a loved one is talking to online is legitimate is to do a reverse image search. Start by saving a picture of the person on your computer or smartphone. Then visit Google Images or TinEye. On Google Images, you’ll see a camera icon near the search bar where you click. You can then upload the image in question. Google Image will find out if that image has appeared anywhere else on the internet. Sometimes you will find the image is actually of a model, actor or member of the military.
More information on reverse image searches can be found here.
According to the FTC, here are some ways you can avoid being scammed:
- Never send money or gifts to a sweetheart you haven’t met in person.
- Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers. Check the person’s photo using your search engine’s “search by image” feature. If the same picture shows up with a different name, that’s a red flag.
- Talk to someone about this new love interest. And pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
- If you suspect a romance scam, cut off contact right away. Then, report to the scam to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. Notify the dating site where you met the scammer, too.
The Lies Romance Scammers Tell
They’ll often say they’re living or traveling outside of the United States. We’ve heard about scammers who say they are:
- working on an oil rig
- in the military
- a doctor with an international organization
We’ve heard about romance scammers asking their targets for money to:
- pay for a plane ticket or other travel expenses
- pay for surgery or other medical expenses
- pay customs fees to retrieve something
- pay off gambling debts
- pay for a visa or other official travel documents
Scammers ask people to pay:
- by wiring money
- with reload cards like MoneyPak or gift cards from vendors like Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, or Steam
If you’ve already paid someone you think is a scammer, the FTC advises:
Act quickly. If you think you’ve sent money to a scammer or government impersonator, contact the bank, gift card, or credit card company you used to send the money. Tell them that it was a fraudulent transaction. Then ask them to reverse it and give you your money back.
Did you send a wire transfer through a company like Western Union or MoneyGram? If so, contact the wire transfer company. Tell them it was a fraudulent transfer. Ask them to reverse the wire transfer and give you your money back.
MoneyGram: 1-800-MONEYGRAM (1-800-666-3947)
Western Union: 1-800-325-6000
Scammers often ask people to pay using wire transfers. The FTC brought successful cases against both Western Union and MoneyGram, and the companies agreed to return hundreds of millions of dollars to people who were tricked into wiring money to scammers using their services. The settlements also required both companies to make changes to make it harder for scammers to use MoneyGram or Western Union to defraud customers.
Did you send cash? If so, chances are it’s gone. But contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 877-876-2455 and ask them to intercept the package. To learn more about this process, visit USPS Package Intercept: The Basics. If you used another delivery service, contact them as soon as possible.
If you spot a scam, tell your loved ones and people in your community about it so they can avoid it, too. Then tell the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. Your reports can make a huge difference in knowing what’s happening in your community.