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Amherst police warn against becoming broken hearted

Online dating might seem a reasonable way to put some distance between yourself and a suitor but police warn scammers use the sites to encourage hapless victims to cash bad cheques.
Online dating might seem a reasonable way to put some distance between yourself and a suitor but police warn scammers use the sites to encourage hapless victims to cash bad cheques. - Christopher Gooding

It’s tough enough looking for love in all the wrong places, but even the right ones online aren’t any better.

Amherst Police reported earlier this month the case of a local resident falling victim to an online dating scam that cost them $10,000. Unlike the Nigerian Prince scam which tricks victims into believing a small fortune can be theirs in return for their banking information, or scams tricking seniors into believing a loved one is in need of money for an emergency, dating scams last days, week and even months using a process colloquially known as ‘catfishing.’

“It’s very elaborate steps to create a fake dating profile,” Amherst Police Const. Tom Wood said. “It could be a Facebook account, because a lot of dating sites you need a Facebook profile as well. They might have Twitter. But there will 10 friends, or not a lot of friends. No one is tagged in anything. The picture could be a model. Almost too good to be true.”

The scammers’ first goal is to create the illusion, or at least reasonable doubt, their fake account seems legitimate. Then they hook victims into their fantasy, playing to the victim’s desires and insecurities.

“They get their trust. Usually they’ve talked for months,” Wood said. “Then they’ll have an excuse… they’re overseas. Some sort of emergency or crisis has happened. Perhaps they got injured, but because of the remote place they are in they don’t have money. They have money in the bank, so they ask you to help them.”

A common scam, Wood says, is for the scammers to send what looks like a legitimate cheque. The victim is not only asked to cash it and then wire the money back to the scammer, they are coached on how to answer banks tellers who are wary of customers falling prey to such scams. By the time the deceit is caught, it’s too late and the victim is now responsible for paying the money back to the bank.

A fake profile, a fake cheque, a real money transfer and real consequences.

The formula seems simple to catch and yet people fall victim regularly in the local area. Wood estimates at least one victim comes forward every few months but, like seniors who worry about losing their independence if their family find out they fell victim to a scam, many don’t report to police when they have become a victim to an online dating scam.

“A lot of people don’t report these scams because of embarrassment… the ones we’re seeing are probably just the tip of the iceberg.”

Wood says there are common warning signs to be aware of.

“Check their profiles. Check their pictures. Is what they are saying too good to be true? Are they asking all the questions about you because they are trying to steal your personal information so they can keep the scam going, but are they vague with the questions you ask?”

Another step the public can take is to reverse search the profile picture of their would-be suitor. Online sites like allow you to upload a saved image and see if it comes up on any other website.

“It might pop up and have other names attached to it,” Wood said.

Those images haven’t already become attached to a dubious account. A random friend request on social media may not be as innocent as they always seem, Wood says.

One of the first steps successful scammers take towards fooling their victims is creating reasonable doubt. Stealing someone’s profile pictures, scammers create fake profiles and then send friend requests to people to create the illusion of legitimacy. If you learn this has happened to you, Wood says, contact Facebook or the social media provider and report the profile to have it removed.

If there is one sure-fire sign romance is not in the air with a long distance online relationship it’s this: money.

“As soon as they ask for cash, it’s time to walk away,” Wood said. “When someone says to wire money, even when wire transfer services are legit, if they are asking you to wire money, to me, most likely it’s a scam.”  

Authorities estimated over $17 million was lost through online dating scams in 2016 alone.

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