Jan. 18, 2013 at 1:30 PM ET
How could someone be fooled by a fake girlfriend for months? That was the obvious question after startling revelations that Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s girlfriend and her heart-tugging tale of leukemia and death were fraudulent.
Barb Sluppick watched the news, and the reaction it caused, with great interest. She has counseled thousands of men and women who've been scammed by fake lovers during the past decade as operator of the victim assistance website RomanceScams.org. She has a simple message for those who think Te'o's version of events is impossible to believe.
"Not only is possible, it happens all the time," Sluppick said. Victims have flown to Nigeria to meet fake lovers, they've taken out second mortgages on their homes to send money. "Te'o wouldn't even be the first football player to fall for it."
It seems there's a lot of money in fake love.
RomanceScams is a network of former victims who offer counseling to those embroiled in various version of this common Internet scheme. The site has 19,000 active members. Many victims won't fess up how much they've lost, but among those who do, she counts $15.2 million.
As details of Te'o's situation emerged, Sluppick had an immediate reaction.
"I thought, ‘It has all the earmarks of a romance scam.’ One catastrophe after another. In this case, a car accident, followed by cancer," she said. Those items heighten emotional interest, she said, and also prime a victim for fraud – usually a request for money.
Details about Te'o's story are still hard to come by, and it's possible he was a party to the hoax. And there is no evidence that anyone asked Te'o for money or tried to defraud him, so it's incorrect to label his situation as a romance scam.
But Sluppick wants people to know that Internet users do stupid things for love all the time.
"Oh god, yes, it happens every day to people you would never dream of it happing to -- doctors, lawyers, CEOs of companies," said Sluppick, who founded the group in 2002 after almost becoming a victim herself.
A few other seemingly incredible details of Te'o's story didn't surprise Sluppick.
"The fact the he said he met her, and he hadn't. I've seen that happen before, where a victim says he's met the person, but it turns out, they never met," Sluppick said. "Often, the lover is too embarrassed to say they've never met face to faceWhen someone meets a lover online, and they are telling others about the relationship, the first thing people ask is, 'Have you met in person?' So the victim just says 'yes.' "
Men are also ideal targets because they tend to keep quiet out of humiliation after they are scammed, she said.
"When men are scammed, they tend to internalize it, unlike women, who tend to share it with friends and hash it out over and over," she said. The effect is heightened if there's an element of homophobia present, she added. "If (a male victim) finds out a male was playing the part of the female, they don't want anyone to think they were playing kissy face with another man. So they keep quiet."
Despite public and private warnings, this most old-fashioned crime continues. Boy meets girl -- or the reverse -- girl seduces boy, girl asks boy for money. The crime is so persistent that in November, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command issued its third warning about romance scams.
"Special Agents from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command are once again warning Internet users worldwide to be extra vigilant and not to fall prey to internet scams or impersonation fraud - especially scams promising true love … (that) only end up breaking hearts and bank accounts," said the warning, which focused on women who fall for scammers pretending to me U.S. servicemembers overseas. “We cannot stress enough that people need to stop sending money to persons they meet on the Internet. ... If someone asked you out on a first date and before they picked you up they asked you for $3,000 to fix their car to come get you, many people would find that very suspicious and certainly would not give them the money. This is the same thing, except over the Internet.”
Online lover scams are effective because men and women looking for love tend to be vulnerable, Sluppick, said. The Internet provides a massive pool of targets, and it's easy to fabricate identities. In some cases, that's not even illegal.Would-be scammers learn a lot about their victim’s hopes and dreams, and then work hard to become their love fantasy.
"If the woman wants three kids and a house in the country, the scammer says 'I want that, too,'" she said. "They are very good at what they do.”
Victims don’t even have to be looking for love, Sluppick stressed.
“You don't even have to be on a dating site. Much of this now starts on Facebook, or Twitter, or just some other forum,” she said.
You don’t even have to be involved in the online romance to be a victim. Love scammers often steal pictures from third parties on dating sites and use those to persuade targets they are attractive.
"All it takes is a right-click, and you too could be a victim of romance scams," she said. "There's a lot of good looking people out there who get used for this."
Often, the saddest element of the tragedy is family members who can't talk the victim out of their fake love affair, Sluppick said. She's working with the family of an 80-year-old woman right now who's already lost $80,000, but her family cannot persuade her to stop sending the scammer money. In fact, scammers typically try to isolate their marks from loved ones, with comments like, "They just don't want you to be happy,’" Sluppick said.
The best way to avoid being a victim of an Internet romance scam is to geographically limit your love interests, Sluppick said, and arrange for a safe, public, face-to-face meeting early onin the courtship. But one other important tool for stopping scammers is largely out of her control.
"People need to realize that this does happen,” she said. “...I've had people who didn't meet, or even video chat, with their supposed lover for two or three years. When people think it can't happen, that makes it easier for the scammers."
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