It’s sad but true. We are as connected as ever but probably as lonely as ever. With that comes the opportunity for criminals to take advantage of unsuspecting people looking for companionship in online platforms.
It works like this…you meet someone on Facebook or some other popular social media environment. Over a relatively short period of time, this person not only befriends you but starts showing romantic interest. You message each other frequently each day but never meet because they live out of the country or have a career that keeps them from being available to meet in person.
At some point, this person states a need for money…it could be for an airline ticket home, medical expenses or some other financial situation that has this person in trouble. Now they turn to you for help by asking you to wire funds or send gift cards to help with these expenses. They’ll be embarrassed to ask but won’t know where else to go.
You feel like you know them and want to help so you send the first installment. Now they have you and will keep asking for money for various reasons until they’ve drained you dry or until you wise up.
How does this happen? First, you’d be surprised at how much information about yourself you’ve posted online. Just take a look. A complete stranger can learn about your family, your interests, your career, about how old you are, where you grew up, if you’re widowed…on and on.
They’ll use that to establish common interests and make it look like you’ve met the perfect person. These people have no concern about taking money from someone who lost their husband last year and is feeling lonely. Second, you may actually be feeling a little lonely and here comes this person who is now filling the void of that loneliness with fake concern and friendship. They’re ruthless.
How should you avoid this scam?
*Be aware of what you are posting online. Social media creates a community but like any other community, there are true friends and those who wish to do harm. Don’t post so much that someone can learn that much about you.
*Until you’ve met this person in person, be very wary of any request for money or additional information about you. That said, be very wary of meeting someone in person you first met online. You know absolutely nothing about them. Anyone can create a very convincing but completely fake persona online. Mom always said don’t talk to strangers. Take Mom’s advice.
*Listen to friends and family who may be telling you this doesn’t feel right. You might be too close to the situation and no longer looking at it objectively. Friends and family know you better and have your interest at heart more than a random stranger who says they live overseas.
*Be honest with yourself about your personal situation and how that can be exploited. Know your weaknesses and defend yourself there. Chances are, your personal situation is out there for the world to see. They can read the obituaries and know you lost your spouse last year. They’ll assume you’re lonely. They’ll see your vacations and assume you have wealth. They’ll use whatever they find no matter how close, personal or sensitive it is. They don’t care. They are after your money.
*Last thing…if they do ask for money, it is most likely a scam. Stop communicating immediately. That’s the best defense.
We can’t live in a hole and become hermits. We have to get out there and socialize. God made us that way. But we can also be skeptical about a person and what we share about ourselves until we really know them. But if you feel you have already fallen prey, don’t be embarrassed. It has happened to a lot of very sharp, bright people.
In fact, people reported losing $143 million last year to this scam alone. That is more than any other reported scam according to the Federal Trade Commission. So, cut off communications with this person and report them to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. Stick to safer ways of meeting people through friends and organizations to which you belong and stay financially safe.
Frank Freels, Jr. is the senior vice president, security officer of Volunteer State Bank.