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Scam Alert

Online Romance for Love — or Your Money?

How to avoid a bad match in cyberspace

The inevitable hook

After a few weeks of sweet talk, there comes the inevitable hook: Your friend needs your help.

You may be asked to send money for some personal emergency or a plane ticket to come see you. The scammer may say that he or she is unable to cash a paycheck due to working overseas: Let me send you my check — you can cash it and then wire-transfer the money back to me. The check looks genuine, but in fact it's counterfeit, and you can be liable for funds that you send to your friend — and perhaps arrested for check fraud.

Other scammers will ask you to join in phony business ventures. Romance cons often involve "reshipping" schemes, in which you're sent merchandise purchased with stolen credit cards and told to forward it to an overseas sweetheart.

There's a new twist that Sluppick says is "growing by leaps and bounds" (though firm statistics are few because victims are usually too embarrassed to report it): Romance scammers are claiming to be soldiers in order to target patriotic women of all ages. "I even heard from the Army about the photograph and identity of an actual retired general being used in an attempt to scam older women," says Sluppick.

Whatever the angle, if you fall for the first come-on, you'll get follow-up pleas until you wise up or run out of money. After that, you'll never hear from your sweetheart again.

Warning signs

So if you're seeking a match in cyberspace, know the warning signs of con-panionship:

  • Scammer Grammar. Romance scammers often describe themselves as educated American or British businessmen, but since most are in fact nonnative speakers of English, their messages are littered with misspellings and poor grammar.

  • The 23401 ZIP code. It's sometimes given as part of the scammer's home address in Nigeria, to receive wired funds. In reality, it's the ZIP code for Keller, Va., but scammers provide it in the apparent belief that Americans expect a ZIP code. It's probably no coincidence that 234 is the international telephone dialing code for Nigeria.

  • Eye candy. Your new friend may be so incredibly good-looking because the photo you're looking at was lifted from an online modeling site. One past favorite for this kind of pilfering has been focushawaii.com.

  • A request for your mailing address. You're told it's needed to send you gifts or to come visit. But the true purpose may be to set you up for a reshipping scam or some other variety of con.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP/ Sterling Books. Have a look at our Scam Alert archive for past warnings about the con artists who too often seek to part Americans from their hard-earned money.

Published February 11, 2011

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