Federal law enforcement describe how to avoid dating site scams

More people are turning to online dating for a semblance of companionship during the coronavirus crisis — sites often rife with sophisticated scams targeting Americans from overseas, the FBI warns.

Singles might be using online dating sites like Match.com and apps like Tinder and Bumble to cope with loneliness. But while it might be a nice way to have human contact online, it may leave people more vulnerable to scammers who want to drain bank accounts.

“A lot of these things happen over a period of time,” said Kevin Luebke, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

Luebke said scammers first try to gain the victim’s trust and then try to test them by coaxing a victim into handing over money based on sympathy. It might be a fake story about the inability to pay bills or a death in the family.

“The person that they’re grooming is like, ‘Well, what can I do to help?,” Luebke said.

“[The scammers] say, ‘Well that’s really nice I don’t need anything.’ Next thing you know they might say, ‘Well if you could send me over $100 I’d really appreciate it,’ and then it escalates from there.”

In one recent D.C. case, Luebke said a woman in her 70s was scammed out of $1 million.

The suspect, from Nigeria, traveled to Atlanta in December, when he was arrested on a series of charges, including money laundering. Luebke said the prime suspect is currently being held in D.C. and the federal government is trying to extradite three other overseas suspects back to the U.S.

In a similar Virginia case, a woman in her 60s was duped out of $160,000. She traveled to meet the female suspect at a hotel in New York City, where she handed over thousands of dollars in cash with a promise of a briefcase filled with $1 million.

Luebke said the female suspect never produced the briefcase and made an excuse about why.

“We actually set up a sting operation about a year-and-a half ago when she did it again, and we were able to arrest that person in New York,” Luebke said.

In that case, though, Luebke said the suspect was allowed to post bail and hasn’t been seen since.

So what should you watch out for while navigating the online dating scene?

Luebke said the crime usually starts with the crook trying to lure users into other private forms of communication.

“If you do get on these dating sites, a lot of the ones who are looking to scam the person looking for a date are trying to take that person offline,” said Luebke. “Because they want their conversations to be private so that it doesn’t trigger alarms.”

Luebke also said most of the scammers aren’t from the U.S.

“Try to get a picture of that person, try to get their name and try to vet that person out as much as they can, maybe by asking specific questions,” said Luebke.

“If they say they’re from Kansas, say, ‘What high school did you go to?’ and more than likely, they’re going to stump that person if they’re from a foreign country.”

You can report potential dating site scammers to the bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

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Ken Duffy

Ken Duffy is a reporter and anchor at WTOP with more than 20 years of experience. He has reported from major events like the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, 2016 Election Night at Trump Headquarters in Midtown Manhattan and the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami.

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