Beware of Online Sweetheart Scams



Have you been dating someone online?  Has he or she ever asked you for your bank account information or asked you to “kindly” help with a financial transaction?  I see the devastating aftermath of online dating scams, or “sweetheart scams,” all too often.

A typical scenario: Jane meets Steve online.  After months of online chatting, emails, texts, and even phone calls, Jane believes she is genuinely in love with Steve, and Steve convincingly tells Jane everything she’s ever hoped to hear from a man.  Trust has been built, and Jane can’t imagine that Steve would ever do anything to hurt her.  Suddenly, Steve faces a tough circumstance- a horrible accident involving a family member, unlawful imprisonment in another country, a terrible tragedy, or some sort of “emergency” affecting Steve’s bank account or his ability to complete important business transactions.  Steve may even use a co-conspirator- someone posing as an attorney, a government official, or a doctor- to verify his claims.  Sometimes Steve won’t even use an “emergency” excuse but, instead, will simply ask Jane for a favor.  Either way, this is when the sweetheart scam begins.  Steve will ask Jane to conduct a financial transaction on his behalf, and Jane may end up on the hook for thousands of dollars in losses. 

An increasingly common method Steve might use is to ask Jane for her online banking login information.  Steve will then deposit a fraudulent check into Jane’s account (often using the remote deposit feature).  He’ll then instruct Jane to withdraw the funds and wire them to a friend or business associate.  The wire will often, but not always, be sent overseas to a place like Malaysia, Canada, England, China, or Nigeria.  By the time the deposited check is returned as fraudulent, the money is already thousands of miles away, and Jane is left owing the credit union or bank the amount of the loss.  This can be anywhere from a few hundred to many tens of thousands of dollars!

Another method Steve might use is to play multiple online lovers.  He will have romantic online relationships going with Jane, Julie, and Jessica, and he’ll use all three to accomplish his goal.  For instance, Julie will deposit a fraudulent check supplied by Steve, and then Julie will wire the funds to Jane (who Steve says is a business associate).  Jane will then withdraw the funds in cash and ship them to Jessica who in turn ships or wires them to Steve.  When the check comes back as fraudulent or stolen, Julie’s account is debited, and she takes the loss.  Jane and Jessica may be called to testify as witnesses if legal action ensues.

Scammers use many other methods, from sophisticated scenarios to simply asking victims for money over time.  Sweetheart scams affect everyone- men and women, from young college graduates to the elderly.  Love can make a fool out of the most intelligent person, so being aware of this type of fraud is essential. 

Here are a few things to remember:
1)  Never, under any circumstances, give your account information to an online friend, new “business partner,” or love interest.  This includes account numbers, online banking login information, PINs, passwords, and any other sensitive information.  If you’ve already given this type of information out, contact your financial institution immediately to close your accounts and open new ones.

2)  If you’re dating someone online and he or she asks for help with a financial transaction, say NO!  When you deposit a check OR allow someone to negotiate a check through your account, you are taking legal responsibility for those funds.  Even if funds from the check you deposited are available in your account, the check can still be returned and charged to your account.  Once you wire or ship money away, it is gone.  If the check is returned later, you will be the one left owing it.

3)  Trust your gut.  If it sounds too good to be true (think lottery winnings or an unexpected inheritance), it’s too good to be true. 

4)  If you’ve been scammed through online dating or social media, you can report it to the FBI at ic3.gov.  If you feel you are in danger, contact your local or state police immediately!

Please spread the word, and never assume you or your loved ones are immune.  It is ultimately up to consumers to be financially savvy, watchful, and wary. 

Rachel Pross, Director of Compliance and Legislative Affairs
Northwest Community Credit Union