NEW YORK (MainStreet) Romeos abound, especially online and will easily worm their way into your heart and bank account.
Online fraudsters are very sneaky and creative and have found new ways to convince millions of people to give up their bank or credit card information, often robbing consumers of their savings and ruining their credit. The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center received 5,600 complaints in 2011 from victims of romantic suitors. The victims who reported the crimes lost a total of $50.4 million.
There are several telltale signs that your current romantic interest is really just not that into you, but definitely is obsessed with you giving up your financial data.
The Nigerian prince is still out there and working harder than ever. The conspirators have stepped up their game and now have dedicated call centers in Nigeria where they specialize in scamming people out of their hard earned money. They have learned the art of persuasion and coercion well.
The Nigerian letter has fraudsters pretending to be representatives of the country in some sort of official government role and offers you the "opportunity" to share in part of a large sum of money. However, they first need your help with expenses. Once you ante up the expenses, they can send the funds overseas and will reimburse you soon.
"Don't take money, don't receive money from him or her or for anyone under any condition," said Roman Gonzalez, security experience director of Toopher, an Austin, Texas-based company with an invisible, location-based multifactor authentication and authorization software tool that works with your smartphone.
"It's just not safe," he said. "But the advice is as blunt as a best friend: don't do it."
If your suitor suddenly suggests that you connect to them via another website or service, be very suspicious and cautious. This new website that you have never heard of "could be and likely is a fake or phished website designed to steal your information," he said. Instead the criminals are using this information to obtain your password that you use for other services.
"In any case, use conservative judgment on whether you connect with this person over more popular social networking sites or through your email," Gonzales said. "Email specifically is a private enough channel for the scammer to try and build trust."
Another sign that your new relationship is not real - the photos of your suitors are stunning and nearly picture perfect. If your new love interest is really attractive and you think he or she is out of your league, proceed carefully.
"Romance scammers will take pictures of wildly attractive women and use that to lure interested parties into thinking they hit the jackpot," he said. "I'm not saying you're not good enough for her, I'm just saying she's not real."
These con artists are quite savvy and very patient, especially since most of them treat it like a 9 to 5 job, because they work at call centers that specialize in defrauding people. The perpetrator is willing to spend several months developing a so-called relationship by staying in constant contact by texting, emailing or even calling the victim. Once the victim feels a connection or bond, then the fraudster drops the hammer and asks for money and disappears rapidly.
Law enforcement's hands are tied when it comes to finding and apprehending the masterminds of financial scams since there is usually very little evidence and many of them are abroad.
More than 40 million Americans have tried online dating, so scammers are redirecting their efforts and often target social media or online dating sites, especially during vulnerable times such holidays.
These "romance scammers" take advantage of victims by convincing them to give their money for some type of emergency or by involving them in a larger fraud using their bank accounts to move stolen money, also known as money muling.
"They prey on people who are susceptible to this," said Tom Shaw, vice president of financial crimes management at USAA, the San Antonio-based financial services company. "Never send money to someone you met in online dating website. It is fraud. Never leave the control and security of the online dating websites. Love can be blind."
Once victims send money to their scammer, it is nearly impossible for the police to get it back, he said.
"Your chances of getting it back are slim and none," Shaw said. "They probably have stolen your identity as well. Some of the scammers are from organized criminal rings. What we seen is that it has been all over the place and it is not age or gender specific."
Protect yourself from any potential scams or frauds by keeping your confidential information to yourself.
"Keep your own secrets," Gonzalez said. "Don't tell anyone your password or bank account information, nor any other kind of personally identifiable information. Any time you tell someone your dog's name, the city you were born in, your favorite sports team or your mother's maiden name, you are answering your bank account's security questions."
Always refrain from reusing your passwords and use long, strong passwords and change them often, he said. Remember your passwords with a password manager such as LastPass which gives you a multifactor authentication option of a second login step to protect your account even more, he said.
If you are dating online, consider using MiiCard, an identity verification service, to prove who you are on dating sites, Gonzalez said. Encourage the other person to use it, too.
"It has wide applicability," he said. Secure that account with two factor authentication and you have a veritable bomb shelter of an identity and security solution.
Although many people have not adopted this strategy yet, remember that your phone is your security powerhouse, Gonzales said.
"Across the board, enable two factor authentication on your accounts," he said. "Should a romance scammer for any reason acquire your affection and your password, there's one thing they don't have - your phone. When you have two-factor authentication enabled, without your phone, their efforts to thwart you will be for naught."
Once you become a victim of a romance scam, call your bank or credit card company to report the fraud.
"Unfortunately, most credit card and bank account fraud solutions are reactive," Gonzalez said. "No major banks have pro-active solutions like two factor payment authorization and it's going to take people like you to tell them that you want it."
In 2013, 13.1 million consumers suffered identity fraud, which is the second highest level on record and 44% of all fraud involved an online transaction, according to a Javelin Strategy & Research survey.
Before you nix all online communication with everyone, cease all contact with the scammer and change all your passwords and order new credit cards.
"Online security confirms many things we already knew about true love: trust no one, always be on your guard and if they ask for all your passwords, they're no good for you," Gonzalez said.
Criminals have found an easy outlet to scam people who are often too trusting, said Mark Stanislav, security evangelist at Duo Security, an Ann Arbor, Mich. two-factor authentication service.
"The methods by which criminals manipulate these people have changed over the years as technology has increased in our daily lives, but the underlying reasons why criminals are successful has not," he said.
--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet