Duped by Love

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More than 5,600 Americans were duped last year by online romance scams, in which criminals target people who are searching for love online. In most cases, "scammers search chat rooms, dating sites and social networking sites," according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a Virginia-based federal agency that logs and analyzes Internet fraud reports.

The figures were released this week in the center's "2011 Internet Crime Report."

According to the report, Americans' continued reliance on email is exposing them to more online fraud. In addition to romance scams, online users were victimized by identity theft, advance-fee fraud and work-from-home scams to the tune of almost $500 million last year.

Nearly one-third of the 314,246 complaints filed last year with IC3 entailed financial losses, according to the center's report. And IC3 said the typical victim wasn't losing chump change: on average, those reporting losses were conned out of $4,187.

The center reported a 3.4 percent increase in complaints last year, compared to 2010.

William Hinerman, Unit Chief of IC3, said the increase is most likely due to an increase in Internet usage.

IC3 logged thousands of complaints from every age group and every state, referring roughly one-third of them to law enforcement authorities. It employs an "automated matching system" that allows investigators to group related complaints together.

In a conference call for reporters on May 10, prior to the report's release, IC3 representatives said individuals aged 40 and above represented the majority of complainants in 2011. Elizabeth Walling, an Internet crime analyst, who was among several FBI agents and IC3 administrators on the call, explained that older Internet users are "particularly vulnerable" to scams that prey on those seeking companionship.

Financial losses for romance scams alone topped $50 million dollars, according to IC3, an average $8,900 per victim. Complaint statistics regarding romance scams from previous years were not immediately available.

The report detailed the sometimes elaborate schemes used to woo potential victims.

"Scammers use poetry, flowers and other gifts to reel in victims, while declaring 'undying love,'" according to the report. "These criminals also use stories of severe life circumstances, tragedies, family deaths, personal injuries or other hardships to keep their victims concerned and involved in their schemes."

Hinerman noted: "The victims think they've met someone nice, they grow to trust the scam artist, and then the scam artist begins asking for money or other types of merchandise."

The highest volume of complaints stemmed from promises of being able to work from home, according to the report.

Organized cyber criminals recruit their victims through newspaper ads, online employment services, unsolicited emails or "spam," while social networking sites advertising work-from-home "opportunities," the report said.

The Center reported receiving an average of 39 complaints a day about fraudulent e-mailers purporting to be from the Federal Bureau of Investigation or other government agencies, demanding money from victims. As a matter of policy, IC3 notes, government agencies do not send unsolicited e-mails.

Other e-mails scams are similarly malicious.

Terri Shaffer, an IC3 supervisor, said victims should make sure they know whom they're sending their money to before completing any transaction.

"If I have to sum it up in one word it would be 'homework' or maybe it would be 'research,'" Shaffer said. "If a stranger came to your home you wouldn't hand them $1,000."

Graham Kates is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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