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FBI Study Says Seeking Love Online Often Leads to Heartache — and Fraud

by Alex Johnson /  / Updated 

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Social media scams and cruel cons that target lonely hearts to rob them blind were the leading drivers of Internet fraud in 2014, the FBI reported Tuesday in a survey of computer crime.

In its annual online fraud report, the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, said total financial losses to online fraud reported to the federal government last year topped $800 million.

But that's just a drop in the bucket of what's presumed to be the real cost of online fraud, much of which doesn't go reported. Citing industry data, the National White Collar Crime Center, which coordinates IC3 with the FBI, said online fraud is actually estimated to cost U.S. residents and businesses more than $3.5 billion a year.

The IC3 report, however, is a window on how much of that fraud is perpetrated. And in 2014, love-seekers and people who overshare on Facebook and other social media sites became the most common victims of cybercreeps, the report said.

The worst schemes involve scammers — often masquerading as members of the military — pretending to seek love online, IC3 said. Romance confidence scams were the most-reported kind of fraud last year, with victims swindled out of $14,214 on average.

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CHART: Romance con statistics
Women made up the vast majority of online romance cons in 2014.Internet Crime Complaint Center

And women were by far more likely to be targeted than men. While men made up the slight majority of all Internet crime victims, women were victimized in almost 70 percent of romance cons.

"Criminals search dating websites, chat rooms, and social media websites for personally identifiable information, and use well-rehearsed scripts to attract potential victims," it said. "Victims of these scams believe they are in a relationship with someone who is honest and trustworthy without meeting them in person."

The crooks are especially adept at manipulating social media as it has become "an integral part of life for people of all ages," IC3 said. More than 12 percent of all fraud reports last year included a social media aspect — a jump of more than 400 percent in just five years, the agency said.

"In most cases," it said, "victims' personal information was exploited through compromised accounts or social engineering" — techniques whereby crooks persuade victims to click on dangerous links. Fake or masked "Like" and "Share" buttons are particularly effective lures, often taking clickers to sites that load malware on their computers.

IC3 also noted a sharp rise in crime associated with virtual currencies like Bitcoin, Litecoin and Peercoin, reports of which doubled over 2013. "As this type of currency becomes more popular, criminals have comprised new ways of capitalizing on this market, bilking millions of dollars from victims around the globe," it said.

Some things never change, however — as it has been for years, the big money remains in the business world.

The total number of reports by businesses has always been relatively small, because businesses are reluctant to make it known that they've been conned. But among those that did go public last year, the average loss to businesses — most commonly through compromises of their email services or manipulation and fraud in investment transactions — was more than $42,000, the data show.

IC3 offered several tips for sussing out suspicious schemes:

  • Don't respond to any unsolicited email, phone call or mail requesting your personal information.
  • Don't fill out forms in email messages asking for personal information.
  • Don't click on email links. Instead, go to the official website of the business or group and start from there,
  • Maintain at least two email addresses — one for people you know and one for all other purposes.
  • Frequently check your bank statements to avoid unauthorized charges and monitor for fraud.
  • Never give your credit card number over the phone unless you made the call.
  • Don't do business with people or companies operate only from a post office box address.
  • Don't accept packages which you didn't order.
  • If someone you've never met tells you he or she loves you but needs money to visit you, don't buy it.

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