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By Tim Grant, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

When investigators in the fraud watch department of Washington-based AARP received a call from a senior citizen late last year who had lost $300,000 to a con man she met on an Internet dating website, the organization looked into the problem. It found that in just the last six months of 2014, an estimated $82 million had been lost to online romance scams.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint project of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, found that 29 percent of people targeted in such scams were women 50 or older, who accounted for more than 51 percent of all financial losses in romance scams.

“It’s a big problem for senior citizens,” said Amy Nofziger, director of AARP’s Fraud Watch Network. “The problem is a lot of them go on online dating sites and don’t even know fraudsters are lurking on them. That’s why we are educating them about this problem and ways to spot scammers and how to protect themselves.

“When victims believe their love interest is available 24 hours a day, it’s because they are working in teams and working off scripts,” she said.

A big red flag, she said, is when the online suitor spells his name different ways at different times, such as Steven or Stephen.

“Another red flag is if the online suitor’s emails contain many misspellings or bad grammar,” Nofziger said. “Most of the scammers are overseas. Their main intention is to steal your money, never to start an emotional relationship with you.”

Senior citizens are especially vulnerable to Internet dating scam artists because, like the $300,000 victim from Virginia, they are often widowed and lonely.

The Virginia victim met her suitor on the popular dating website Match.com, but all dating websites are potential playgrounds for people trying to trick others out of their money.

Many of the seniors who get wooed by online con artists are middle-class people who have scrimped and saved. The scams often occur over a period of time, sometimes up to six months, with the suitor usually asking for money in increments of $2,000 or $3,000 at a time.

They may claim they need cash to help a sick child or close relative. Or they pretend to be an American stuck overseas who will ask the unsuspecting senior citizen to send cash for travel expenses to visit America, but some tragedy will often occur on the way to the airport that prevents them from getting on the airplane — and requires even more money.

“The majority of these victims are financially secure, so $2,000 or $3,000 does not seem like a huge red flag to them,” Nofziger said. “They believe they are helping the scammer in some way, and they are in love. The victim truly believes this is the love of their life and they are going to start a future together.”

Nofziger said men are slightly more vulnerable than women to fall prey to Internet dating scams. But women are more likely to report it and talk about it. There can be embarrassment and shame when the victim realizes he or she was the victim of a con.

One way to double-check someone on the Internet, Nofziger said, is to put that individual’s photograph through the Google search-by-photo feature. Scam artists often use photos of models or military photos. The search will reveal where else that photograph has been used.

“We know many people have found their true love on these dating websites,” she said. “But by raising awareness, we will help educate them about the dangers that may be lurking on there.”

Anyone who believes they have been conned on an Internet dating website should call the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline number, 877-908-3360.

Photo: Pretty scary, right? Anonymous3000 via Flickr

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