Sweetheart and dating scams rob millions of dollars from honest people each year. Imagine the heartbreak: You think you've found the love of your life, only to be taken for your money - and lots of it.
For most victims, stolen money is where it ends. But for Sharon Armstrong, a 59-year old from New Zealand, things got a lot worse.
It all started in 2011 when Armstrong joined an online dating service when she began communicating with a "man" that "she fell hard and fast" for. Of course, he was in London and she was in New Zealand as they began an online relationship.
They sent more than 7,000 emails in about five and a half months, and also had hours worth of phone conversations. But when it came time to video chat, the man always had an excuse as to why he couldn't get on Skype.
The man also claimed to be a civil engineer and promised Armstrong a job working with him at his company. He said he would pay for her airfare both ways, so Armstrong had no reason to worry about being scammed financially. She also did her homework. The company he claimed to work for was legitimate and everything checked out.
But here's the catch: Armstrong would need to fly to Buenos Aires and pick up a "thick contract with lots of trade secrets" before she could meet her man in London. Her expenses were paid for, so again, she didn't think anything of it.
When she landed in Buenos Aires, an empty suitcase arrived with instructions to put her stuff in there for her trip to London. There was also a note saying she could peel pack the suitcase's lining to see what was hidden inside, but she didn't. Armstrong told Naked Security, "I never pulled up the lining. Part of me was telling myself ‘You’re being paranoid’. I just thought ‘You know what? I trust this man. He would never do this.'"
Well, guess what? He did. At the airport customs agents found three huge bags of cocaine hidden inside the suitcase's lining. She spent the next two and a half years in jail, which was reduced from her original four years and 10-month sentences after appeals and convincing a judge that she was the victim of a scam.
When all is said and done, Armstrong offered this piece of advice: "listen to your gut." On top of that, the FBI offered some tips as a part of Operation Romeo and Juliet, for online daters to be aware of before they get too involved with a criminal in between the digital sheets:
- Never, ever send money to someone you have not met and have no reason to trust.
- Never provide your personal information, including your bank account information, to someone you do not know or trust.
And here's a few tips from us:
- Do a Google search of the person's name. It's possible the name has been used before, or for similar scams which could have been outed as a scammer on scam-tracking websites.
- Look at any social media profiles. If the profile was created recently or has many friends that don't seem to share any connection, that's another tipoff.
- Another way to catch a scammer is to run any personal photos sent through TinEye. You might find "his/her" photos are all over the Internet. That's because scammers frequently use common stock photos to build their persona.
- A scammer could be juggling several targets at the same time. Ask about something they discussed in the past. If they can't answer fast, it means they're digging into their notes to "remember."
- The scammer may try to dodge any questions. Typically, scammers like to ask most of the questions so they can become "the perfect mate." Your friends might notice that this person has become more and more ideal over time - that's not a coincidence.
- And, if you catch one of these scammers, be sure to report it to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.