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Sweetheart Scams: How an Online Romeo Could Ruin More Than Just Valentine's Day

02/10/2015 04:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

Picture this: Your divorced or widowed mom decides to jump back into dating and is encouraged by a friend to try an online service. Within a week or two, she's been contacted by a wealthy, handsome businessman in Denmark (or Canada, or Germany, or UAE, or England, or South Africa- you name it). They hit it off. The two exchange emails and photos, and this guy sounds like the real deal. He's accomplished, successful, polite, about your mom's age, and just looking for the right woman to love.

Over the course of weeks (sometimes even months), he continues to "court" your mom via social media, email, texts, and phone calls. She's hooked and swooning, and she can't wait to finally meet him in person. Suddenly, he runs into some sort of business transaction hiccup and needs your mom to come to the rescue. For whatever reason, he needs your mom to wire or "ship" funds to him immediately. Or he asks your mom if he can use her mobile banking login to remotely deposit a check into her account so she can then wire the funds to a third party. Your mom, cautious but still eager to help out her love, does as he says.

One transaction turns into four, and any questions from your mom are met with a heartbroken, "How could you not trust me? You're making this so complicated." Romeo might go as far as to send her a fake online banking login link so she can "see" her money that is parked overseas for a temporary period of time. Can you tell where this is going yet? Your mom will continue to transfer funds, wire money, and/or negotiate checks. Often Romeo will eventually claim he is finalizing plans to come to the U.S. or bring your mom to wherever he is. This requires even more money and more transactions. Then the bubble finally bursts. Sooner or later, your mom is left with a broken heart and an empty bank account. At best, your mom has padded the pockets of a conman (or woman). At worst, your mom's money has ended up in the hands of terrorists.

Here's a newsflash. This stuff doesn't just happen on Dr. Phil. It's way, way more common than you think. I have worked in Bank Secrecy Act compliance and risk management for financial institutions for years, and I see this stuff all the time -- both personally and through networking groups for others in my profession. It's heartbreaking, sickening, and infuriating. We often plead with the victims to stop sending money, and we show them government websites with stern warnings and articles like the one that you're reading right now. Some of us have gone as far as to ban the victims from being able to do wire transactions at our own financial institutions for their own protection. It really doesn't help. Desperate not to lose this shot at love and manipulated past the point of logic and reason, the victims will just turn to money transfer services outside of "traditional" banking, such as retail gift cards, prepaid cards, Western Union, and others. We see really good people lose it all -- retirements, college funds, life savings, everything. Sometimes, when the accounts are empty, they'll even take out loans in desperation and denial -- sending away even more money that they'll never see again.

Almost all of us have heard the stories of identity theft and the importance of keeping personal information safe, particularly in an age of highly publicized data breaches at major retailers. That's why the subject of "sweetheart scams," like the story I just told you, catches so many off guard. Surely the only people who fall for that are desperate, right? I mean, how can someone be so naïve? Think again. It happens each and every day, to the old and the young, and to both the shrewd and the simple. I think all of us can admit something stupid that we did for love. Maybe you're lucky that all you ended up with was a misspelled tattoo reminding you to "breath." Very smart people find themselves in very big messes for love. It's human nature. Here are some tips to keep yourself and your loved ones safe this Valentine's Day season and every season, for that matter.

1) Never, ever, under any circumstances, give sensitive personal information to an online love interest, friend, or new business partner.

This includes your tax ID, mailing address, account numbers, online banking login information, PINs, passwords, maiden name, mother's maiden name, date of birth, credit or debit card numbers, and anything you wouldn't want displayed on a billboard. If you've already given this type of information out, contact your financial institution right away to close your accounts and open new ones, and pay very close attention to your credit report. Don't take any chances, and don't let your embarrassment hinder you from taking steps to protect yourself.

2) If you're dating someone online and he or she asks for help with a financial transaction or an emergency, say NO!

Period. It's really not worth it. If Romeo can't cope with your financial savvy, then he isn't the right one for you anyway. You're too smart for him!

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. Trust me. It is.

4) Never pay money to get money.

An example? Don't prepay "taxes" or "customs fees" on your "inheritance" from Nigeria. I can almost hear the sound of your eyes rolling back into your head right now, but people still fall for that one all the time.

5) 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!

6) If you want to know a little more about what credit unions are all about -- and this is a shameless plug, since I can't imagine working for anything other than this amazing not-for-profit financial cooperative model -- click here.

Stay safe out there, Valentines!

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