The Better Business Bureau says romance scams are examples of organized crime and they've scammed 1 million Americans in the last 3 years for more than $1 billion.
The BBB of Nebraska, South Dakota, The Kansas Plains, Southwest Iowa wants people to know that online criminals are targeting people older than age of 50 looking for relationships. They meet victims on dating websites and apps, talk to them on the phone, and make up elaborate stories about being from the U.S. but working overseas. Once they've gained trust, the BBB says they ask for money for flights, or because a family member's been in a bad accident.
Locally, some have been taken for hundreds of thousands of dollars including a Lincoln woman who was scammed for $400,000.
"I think first of all if you're getting regular correspondence by email from a person that has contacted you through a dating site grab a paragraph of their dialogue and Google it, see if that comes up other places. You might find that the same exact words are being spoken by 50 different people on 50 different sites," said Jim Hegarty, CEO of the regional BBB. "I think the other big red flag is that you're never able to meet with them, there's always a reason or excuse that you can't meet. And never under any circumstances under any circumstances wire money, send money to anybody that you haven't met."
A woman we'll call "Mary" to protect her identity says her nightmare started with a "wink" on Match.com. Mary says the man said he was working on a project in Africa so they talked on the phone. Three months into the relationship, he asked Mary for money for airfare, tax payments, and help when his daughter was in an accident.
In total, Mary sent him $175,000 before she figured out she was being scammed and he was never coming to meet her.
"At first, I was devastated, and my heart just sunk," Mary said. "How could I allow this to happen to myself? Because it has put me into a financial burden, and I shouldn't be having those problems at my age."
The BBB says of the 1 million people taken in the last three years, 70 percent of them are people age 50 and older.
Authorities say it's hard to prosecute the criminals because there isn't usually cooperation with the foreign government where they live.
Here are some tips from the BBB:
- Protect your identity and wallet because scammers prefer prepaid cards and money transfers.
- Think before going from public to private. Be hesitant of the conversation moves from a more public website to a more private form of email or instant messaging.
- Do your research by pouring over the profile image and description. If it sounds too good ot be true, verify it.
- Ask for details and get specifics.
- Be wary of bad grammar and misspelled words.