Stop these V-day scams before they break your heart and your bank account

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As Valentine’s Day approaches, many people have love on the brain. Online romance, however, has complicated courtships and coupling dynamics by adding a layer of potential deception to every connection. While we do want to keep romance alive, it’s important to enter the world of online dating with open eyes and ears as much as open hearts. It’s vital to stay vigilant this Valentine’s Day so you don’t become a victim of a scamming Casanova.

One of the most common risks of online dating is falling for a catfish, someone who pretends to be someone else online. This is why Patricia’s email to us felt particularly relevant.

“I need your help. I have met a guy online and have been chatting for months. At first I was able to chat through his email and also by phone. Recently, some things have been said that are making me feel uneasy. I have used Truthfinder, People Finder, and Been Verified and can’t get any information on this guy. When I asked him about that, he told me has been hacked several times, so he doesn’t put anything on the internet.

Someone suggested that it’s possible he is using a VPN. Could this be possible, and if you think it is, can you please tell me how I can get the information I am seeking about this guy? Until recently, I was beginning to think that we may have a lot of things in common, but now, I am not sure.”

—Patricia, Mt. Pleasant, WI

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Someone holding a mobile phone showing an online dating match. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson )

The high stakes of romance scams

Patricia, you aren’t the only one who has concerns over a developing online relationship. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in the most recent data, about 70,000 people have reported being victims of a romantic scam with reported losses of up to $1.3 billion; there are high stakes involved beyond just experiencing potential heartbreak.

MORE: BEST VALENTINES DAY GIFTS 2024

Behind the virtual veil

It is certainly possible that the person you’ve been chatting with online could be using a virtual private network (VPN), which is a tool that encrypts your internet connection and routes it through a remote server. While the use of a VPN can make it hard to connect the online activity to a physical location, it would not be able to keep his information from being online.

There are, however, data removal services such as the ones we’ve covered here that can be used to limit his information online. Either he’s being proactive about his privacy and safety, or he’s a scammer with a well-thought-out strategy to scam you out of your money, personal information and identity.

MORE: DON’T EVER DO THIS ON A DATING APP

5 warning signs of online heart-breaking scammers

1) Quickly tell you they love you or try to create a strong emotional connection with you

2) Always have an excuse for not meeting you in person or video chatting with you

3) Ask you for money, gift cards or other favors, often for urgent or personal reasons

4) Send you links or attachments that may contain malware or phishing sites

5) Have inconsistent or vague details about themselves, their location or their work 

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Woman in front of laptop making a heart symbol with hands.

MORE: HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM SOCIAL MEDIA SCAMMERS

Top scams to look out for this Valentine’s Day

With a special eye toward Valentine’s Day, here are some top scams that are particularly rampant during this holiday.

Don’t click that Valentine: Scammers are sending out automated Valentine’s Day cards (usually through chatbots) made to look like they’re from friends and family, but once opened or link clicked (to retrieve the e-card), malicious software can be installed or your device hacked.

Be careful where you look for love: There has been an increase in new domains registered with romantic words around this time of year. Many of these websites have been flagged as potentially dangerous. Stick to established online dating services that include security measures. You can always do a separate search with the name of the dating site you want to check out with words like “scam” or “fake” to see if there has been any negative feedback or experiences.

Do practice good judgment about what you share: Sextortion is a technique where romantic scammers get you to send compromising photos or videos of yourself and then blackmail you for more compromising materials or money.

Sometimes, random scammers will bluff and claim they have a pornographic video of you that will be sent to all your contacts on your phone or computer if you don’t pay them, usually in Bitcoin. While this is an empty threat, shocked recipients of these types of emails have fallen victim to sending over money.

MORE: HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM & ‘VISHING’ SCAMS

3 steps to avoid romance scammers and stay safe

1) Go slow: Don’t rush into any action, whether it is giving away your personal information or paying for anything. Trust takes time, so it’s okay to build this relationship one interaction at a time. You wouldn’t give a stranger at the grocery store your Social Security number or hand over all your money in your wallet in exchange for a check with your fitness instructor.

2) Trust your instinct: If something doesn’t feel right, it’s OK to end the connection with or without “evidence.” Don’t do anything that feels unsafe or wrong.

3) Saying goodbye: If you don’t feel safe, it is okay to end the connection without a conversation, especially if you feel like you’ll be manipulated into further conversation. It is okay to cut off contact and sometimes even block this person online.

MORE: HOW TO AVOID THE WORST DATING APP SCAMMERS 

What to do if you suspect someone is scamming you online?

Do not send money or personal information: If you receive unsolicited requests for money, bank account details or other personal information, do not comply. Scammers often use urgency and emotional manipulation to pressure victims into sharing sensitive data or making payments.

Stay skeptical: Be cautious when dealing with unknown individuals online. If something seems too good to be true (such as winning a lottery you never entered), it probably is. Trust your instincts and verify any claims independently.

Verify the source: Before taking any action, verify the legitimacy of the person or organization contacting you. Search for their name, email address or phone number online. Look for reviews, complaints or warnings related to their activities.

Check for red flags: Scammers often create a sense of urgency to rush victims into making decisions. Offers that promise huge rewards for minimal effort are often scams. Be cautious if someone asks for your Social Security number, credit card details or passwords. Scammers may ask for payment via gift cards, wire transfers or cryptocurrency.

Install good antivirus software on all your devices because while you may be swayed by sweet nothings, your antivirus software won’t be. Having antivirus software on your devices will make sure you are stopped from clicking on any potential malicious links which may install malware on your devices, allowing hackers to gain access to your personal information. Find my review of Best Antivirus Protection here.

SCAMS ARE THE POLICY PROBLEM NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

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Hands holding an iPhone with breakup texts. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

MORE: HOW CUNNING ROMANCE SCAMMERS DUPED FLORIDA MAN OF NEARLY A HALF MILLION DOLLARS

What to do if you suspect you’re a victim of a romantic scammer?

If, like Patricia, you suspect you may have fallen prey to a romantic scammer, check out some of the resources and action steps to take.

1. Log out of accounts

First, log out of all your accounts on every web browser on your computer. Once you’ve done that, you should clear your browser history.

2. Scan your device

Use a trusted antivirus program to run a comprehensive scan to detect and remove any lingering traces of malware. The best way to protect yourself from having your data breached by romance scammers is to have antivirus protection installed on all your devices. Find my review of Best Antivirus Protection here.

3. Change your passwords

If romance scammers expose your passwords, be sure to change them immediately. Be sure to create strong passwords for your accounts and devices, and avoid using the same password for multiple online accounts. Consider using a password manager to securely store and generate complex passwords. It will help you to create unique and difficult-to-crack passwords that a hacker could never guess. 

4. Use 2-factor authentication

Implementing 2-factor authentication is just an extra shield that will prevent a romance scammer from getting into your accounts. This way, even if someone steals your password or if you gave your password to a scammer, they will not be able to access your account without the second factor, such as a code sent to your phone or email.

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5. Report the romance scammer

If you encounter a suspicious profile or communication on social media, online marketplaces or dating apps, report it to the platform. Also, report scams to your local police and file a complaint with the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint or to the Internet Crimes Complaint Center.

6. Search BBB’s scam tracker

Another tool to use is the BBB’s Scam Tracker. You can use it to search keywords or by category to see if your specific scenario or person is being mentioned in any scams posted.

7. Contact your financial institutions

Contact your bank, credit card company or other financial institutions if you suspect any fraudulent activity on your accounts.

8. Monitor credit reports

Monitor your credit reports and scores for any signs of identity theft or unauthorized inquiries.

9. Invest in Identity theft software

You’ll also want to invest in identity theft software to protect your identity and financial accounts. Theft protection companies can monitor personal information like your home title, Social Security number (SSN), phone number and email address and alert you if it is being used to open an account.  They can also assist you in freezing your bank and credit card accounts to prevent further unauthorized use by criminals. See my tips and best picks on how to protect yourself from identity theft.

Kurt’s key takeaways

New scams, romantic or otherwise, seem to multiply, especially during the holidays, as these scammers prey on tender heartstrings. There are many dos and don’ts when it comes to online dating and cyber safety, but nothing replaces your instinct and common sense.

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