Rico’s TICO BULL – The second-costliest category of crime, behind only compromised business email, was confidence and romance fraud, according to the latest FBI’s cybercrime report.

What does romance fraud look like?

In the most unromantic terms, the FBI sums up the category of romance cybercrime this way: “A perpetrator deceives a victim online into believing they have ‘a trust relationship’, whether family, friendly, or romantic. The victim is then persuaded to send money, personal and financial information, or to launder money on behalf of the perpetrator.”

This scam happens every day. Thousands and thousands of times each year. Identify theft happens less often.

Victims are predominantly older widowed or divorced women. Their supposed princes are often criminals who are computer literate and educated. Using social media and dating site profiles for background information, the con artists get close to their marks online through discussing hobbies and pursuits they supposedly have in common.

“Gone are the days where lonely people went to bars or church to meet someone. Now, they just hop on their computers and join dating websites. Online dating websites have opened up so many possibilities for those searching for love.” But with that convenience has come risk – and shame says FBI Special Agent Christine Beining, a veteran financial fraud investigator in the FBI’s Tampa, Fla., division.

Romance scams are highly underreported. This is largely because victims feel extremely embarrassed and ashamed for having fallen prey to this type of scam.

A personal story

I don’t have to read the many blogs and websites dedicated to reporting on romance scams, recently a case hit close to home.

It happened that wife’s older sister, my sister-in-law (SIL), a single woman (divorced many years ago) in her 50s found the love her of empty life: a U.S. serviceman of a high rank stationed abroad. He was handsome, wealthy and willing to share is good fortune with my SIL.

She was beside herself, her ship had finally come in, it was all worth it, keeping up with her Facebook profile where she attracted her prince charming.

I did not know the online romance had been going on for weeks. I only learned of it when it came to the crucial juncture, his soon arrival to see her (in Nicaragua) and of their plans to be together.

But there was a catch. There is always a catch in romance fraud. He had to move money out of his stationed country before being able to be with his true love, a love he had never met, he had never intended on meeting, never knew who she really was.

For her, all she knew of him was the photo, the messages and several telephone calls.

For her, the stars (dollar bills) clouded her vision, her judgement. She lived is a poor Nicaragua town. She is a teacher. Has a good position within the local school board. She also plays the political game of being aligned with the ruling party, the only way to get ahead in her country.

When the story came to me (third hand), she needed advice on how to handle the transfer, I pointed out two major flaws.

One, there was this man with a couple of millions trusting it to someone he didn’t know, never met, sending it to Nicaragua of all places.

Two, he claimed that getting the money out his stationed country was a crime and he faced jail, he had to get it out, trusting her to help him.

Not important, she was in love, she trusted him, she would help him. She would soon be a millionaire.

But she was smart enough to know that the millions were not hers, for her. Her sights were set on the $18,000 dollars she could draw from the account, hers for helping him out.

I am not making up these numbers, I read the text messages.

The millions –  and her 18K – would soon be in her account.

A date for the transfer was set. It was now Monday. The transfer would arrive on Friday.

I had laid out the scam to my wife: the lovey-dovey (qualifying the mark), the arrangement for being together (hook), the money will be here soon (line) and then a problem with the transfer, send money (sinker).

It was the day before the money was to arrive. She was excited, tomorrow, Friday would be a great day.

The morning started out with a ray of sunshine on her life, I could almost feel through the Whatsapp messaging back and forth between sisters the spending wheels churning.

The first message arrived with a copy of the certificate of sending. I have no better words to explain it. I saw the document. I had never seen such a document.

As I told the sisters, wire transfers don’t come like that. It, the transfer, arrives at your bank (she had provided the banking info, probably just the name of the bank and her full name, maybe the account name, but doubt all the transfer codes required), your bank notifies you.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her this was never going to happen. You are in Nicaragua, I can’t see that kind of transfer not raise eyebrows at the bank, let alone authorities.

She, my SIL, wasn’t concerned about that, not even of the possibility the police knocking on her door She had her story has ready, the money wasn’t hers, her share was only the 18K. What’s wrong with that?

As the sun rises in the sky, the next message explains that the certificate is in a diplomatic pouch –  yes, a diplomatic pouch begin sent by a serviceman abroad.
“Cha-Ching”, close, very close.
Next message. She needs to send the courier company located in El Salvador, where the ‘diplomatic pouch’ is, US$800 for the clearing costs and transfer to her country.
The jig is up, but the story doesn’t end there.
By know you would think that she has to have realized it was all a scam. And maybe it was, she couldn’t take that chance.
What made that day great was her inability to raise the $800. She tried.
By the end of the day, the romance had died. Not for her, he stopped messaging back.

When asked why she was ready to send the money if she had had the money, if she knew (deep down) most likely to be a scam, she replied, ‘I just wanted somebody to love me.’”

What to do to stop romance fraud

Here are common warning signs the FBI says those looking for love online should watch for:

  • An online connection presses you to leave a social media or dating website where you met to communicate solely through email or instant messaging.
  • A connection sends you a photo that looks like a glamour shot out of a magazine.
  • Someone online professes love quickly and tries to isolate you from friends and family.
  • Someone claims to be working and living far away – whether that’s on the other side of the country or overseas.
  • A connection makes plans to visit you, but then always has to cancel because of some emergency.
  • Someone asks for money or your help with moving money.

Romance fraud relies on manipulation – and requires the victims to participate. Awareness is tour greatest defense.

Romance fraud in the third century B.C.

Ultimately dating and social media sites are just modern crime scenes for age-old exploitation of the frailty of the human heart. The crimes go back to ancient history. In the third century B.C., a male gigolo named Lao Ai tried to con the widowed queen Zhao of China. His scam made him rich, but also got him executed.

Today punishment is not as extreme. If at all.

The key to romance fraud scams historic and digital is vulnerability.