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Scam Alert

Online Romance for Love — or Your Money?

How to avoid a bad match in cyberspace

Not every Valentine's Day story has a happy ending. Consider the New Jersey man in his 60s who committed suicide after losing his retirement savings to an alleged sweetheart he met on the Internet. Or the woman in her late 50s now in a North Carolina prison, charged with involvement in a check fraud scheme orchestrated by an online love interest.

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Be smart about being cautious when connecting with strangers online. — Black Toby/Gallery Stock

Or the thousands of other people who once believed they were struck by Cupid's arrow in cyberspace — only to be wounded in an online romance scam with shame, embarrassment and a financial loss averaging more than $10,000 per person. Those targeted are often boomer age or older, who may be lonely, rich or just looking for fun.

While the majority of people you can meet online are as sincere as you are, more than a few are scammers presenting themselves as beautiful Russian models, wealthy businessmen working overseas or just Regular Joes or Josephines.

The sad truth: Your newfound cyber-sweetheart may be part of an organized criminal ring, a young man sitting at a keyboard in a Nigerian or Russian boiler room.

"They work in groups, joining online dating websites and cruising chat rooms, each sending out literally hundreds of e-mails ... all day long to other members. And then they just wait for a response," says Barb Sluppick, who, after falling victim to a online romance scammer several years ago, started RomanceScams, one of several support groups for victims of this widespread but under-reported ruse. Since 2005, she says, her Yahoo support group has drawn more than 50,000 members, with a current active list of 17,000.

The dupers often tailor their identities based on information you supply on your profile. If you're a fifty-something woman who declares a love for dogs, you may hear from someone claiming to be a sixty-something executive who volunteers at an animal shelter.

Next: How scammers reel you in. >>

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