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RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) -
Technology is giving new life to an old scam where con artists use the promise of love to win victims' trust and steal their money, Attorney General Roy Cooper warned consumers Wednesday.
"These days many people look for companionship online, and con artists know it," Cooper said. "Sweetheart scammers are using websites to meet, woo and romance their victims out of their money."
The Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division heard from 25 victims of sweetheart scams last year who lost a combined total of more than $2 million dollars. That's up from 2011, when Cooper's office heard from 17 victims who lost approximately $700,000 total to sweetheart scams.
Sweetheart scams first operated in person with con artists pretending to fall in love with lonely people in order to gain their trust and then exploit them financially. The scam has now moved to dating and social media websites such as match.com, seniorpeoplemeet.com, christianmingle.com and Facebook.
According to complaints filed with the Consumer Protection Division, a sweetheart scammer usually approaches a victim by sending messages expressing an interest in getting to know him or her. This is often followed by long online conversations designed to convince the victim that the new romance is real. Once the relationship is established, the con artist claims to experience an emergency while traveling or working overseas and asks the victim to wire them money.
Some victims lose hundreds or even tens of thousands of dollars to the scam. Many repeatedly wire money to their so-called beloved, and only realize they've been scammed once the wire company or their bank becomes suspicious.
Sweetheart scams can strike men and women of any age but seniors can be special targets, Cooper warned, especially if they post information online about a recent tragedy such as the death of a spouse. Of the 25 consumers who complained about sweetheart scams to Cooper's office last year, 10 were senior citizens.
One Lexington senior lost more than $1 million to a man who befriended her on Facebook. He led her to believe he was originally from Charlotte but was currently working in Africa. He conned her into repeatedly sending him money overseas, supposedly to cover expenses until he was paid for his contract work and could return to North Carolina to marry her.
Perpetrators of online sweetheart scams are usually located overseas, and Cooper's office works with international authorities to investigate them. Fraud experts with the Consumer Protection Division have helped intercept thousands of dollars sent overseas by victims of sweetheart scams, and last year thwarted three attempts by seniors to fly to other countries and hand-deliver cash to con artists.
"If someone you meet online starts asking you for money, even a small amount, that's a good sign you're dealing with a scammer," Cooper. "Contact my office if you or a loved one may be caught up in a sweetheart scam."
To avoid sweetheart scams, Cooper offered the following tips:
Remember, people aren't always who they claim to be online.
Never send or wire money to a stranger you meet online. Once the money has been wired, it is highly unlikely you will ever get it back.
Never give out your personal information to someone you meet online, no matter what the circumstance or why they say they need it.
Consumers can contact the Consumer Protection Division by calling 1-877-5-NO-SCAM or filing a complaint online at www.ncdoj.gov.