She Lost Her Heart - and $2,700

A Consumer Alert written by Sid Kirchheimer and issued by AARP in October 2006.

The promise of Internet romance is also the bait for online scams. Here are tip-offs to bogus Web lovers.

They met on a dating website just before Valentine's Day 2005. Richie described himself as "loving, caring and hard-working." His photo, of a handsome, bearded man in a cheek-to-cheek snuggle with a cat, sold Theresa Smalley on the "loving and caring" part. Richie explained "hard-working" in the first of their many online chats.

"He said he was from Massachusetts, but [that he] was supervising a construction project in Nigeria," says Smalley, a supermarket cashier in Middlefield, Ohio. Weeks into daily instant messaging, she knew she had lost her heart to Richie. By April she had also lost $2,700 to him.

Richie claimed he was paid in U.S. postal money orders and was having trouble cashing them at Nigerian banks. "He asked if he could mail me his paychecks and then I could wire him the money," says Smalley. "He even offered me some money for doing it, which, of course, I refused to take."

Over two weeks she deposited two paychecks in her bank account and wired the money to Nigeria; she wired a third payment to resolve what Richie called a "visa problem" so he could return to the United States and they "could finally meet."

Then the bank called. It seems Richie's deposited money orders were authentic. But they were worth only $20 each—they had been chemically washed and altered to read $950.

"The bank said I was responsible for the money I wired; it was everything I had," says Smalley, a divorced grandmother and college student pursuing a degree in social work. "[Richie] said he would hop a flight that night so we could straighten everything out at the bank. That was the last I ever heard from him."

Devastated and angry, Smalley set up a website on romance scams. Within a year, the site's support group had 4,500 registered users—most of them victims, like the 67-year-old woman whose Social Security checks are now being garnished to repay the $8,300 she wired overseas. Another woman refinanced her home to give her online "lover" $30,000. Men are duped nearly as often as women, usually by male scammers posing as lonely females.

"We surveyed 240 members, and their total money loss is over $2.4 million," says Barb Sluppick of Branson, Mo., co-founder with Smalley of the romance scam site. She was nearly defrauded herself when an alleged construction manager working in Nigeria courted her online. He asked her for a loan, but she turned him down. Later she talked to him on the phone. His online photo and profile had depicted "a distinguished man from England," she says, but what she heard was not a British accent.

The promise of romance is also the bait for Internet reshipping scams. Victims are wooed on social networking sites, then recruited to receive merchandise at their homes and instructed to reship it overseas, says FBI spokeswoman Donna Gregory. The scammer usually hides his identity by paying for the merchandise with stolen credit cards, but once retailers discover the ruse, the "reshipper" can be held liable. Some "unknowing victims" have been arrested, Gregory says.

Here are tip-offs to bogus online lovers:

  • Lousy writing. Romance scammers often portray themselves as wealthy, educated U.S. or British businessmen, but since most are foreigners—primarily operating in Africa, Eastern Europe or East Asia—their prose is littered with poor grammar.
  • A 23401 Zip Code. You may see this code listed on the dating websites. The number is taken from the telephone code—234—for Nigeria. But the Zip Code 23401 is actually in Keller, Va.
  • Eye candy. Scammers often take their profile photos from websites featuring models.
  • Corporate connections. "Paychecks" may come from legitimate U.S. corporations. Contact the company to verify employment and alert it that payroll accounts may have been infiltrated.
  • Address request. He wants to send you "love" gifts (usually paid for with stolen plastic)—and set you up for a reshipping scam.
  • The biggest red flag: Savvy scammers seduce you to gain your trust before going in for the kill. "If you write that you're an animal lover," Gregory says, "they say they run a pet rescue shelter. If you say you're struggling financially, [they say] they're millionaires."

Sid Kirchheimer's Scam-Proof Your Life is published by AARP/Sterling Publishing.