Con artists using Cupid to target lovelorn on Valentine’s Day

HARTFORD — Connecticut Better Business Bureau reminds consumers looking for love that St. Valentine’s day can be a double-edged sword.

For most couples, February 14 is a day to celebrate love with kind words, flowers, candy, gifts, meals, jewelry and more. For others, it can be a heartbreaking experience if they find out their online love interest is not looking for love, but for money.

“We have learned that nothing is sacred to criminals,” said Connecticut Better Business Bureau spokesman Howard Schwartz. “St. Valentine’s Day can be an emotional time, and con artists take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities by engaging in catfishing.”

‘Catfishing’ is an impersonation scam that involves individuals courting strangers online with the goal of financial gain, using promises of love and deception. The ruse usually involves fake online dating profiles, background information and the use of other people’s photos on their page to hide their true identity.

Catfishers reach out to others on a dating site, and before long, profess their love. Some even send gifts to gain the confidence of their victims. They can be very patient, and take weeks or months to develop that trust. The end of the game comes when the catfisher eventually coerces their would-be partner into sending money for some sort of emergency or catastrophe. They may even ask for money for a plane ticket to visit. Once they have what they want, they and your money quickly disappear.

Unfortunately, catfishing is common, effective, and potentially very expensive. The Wall Street Journal reported romance scams cost victims near $150 million in the first six months of 2016. To protect yourself, you have to be capable of telling a potential lover from a liar, and it is not always easy.

Knowing how this scam works can help, but it can be difficult to believe you are the target of fraud when your heart is involved.

“Denial,” Schwartz adds, “also plays a part in lowering potential victims’ guard. We would like to believe that the object of our romantic interest is a nice, trustworthy person that would never engage in fraud. Unfortunately, they can and they do.”

Better Business Bureau says there are several red flags to help determine whether the people behind the dating, social media and matchmaking profiles are good-hearted or schemers looking to get their hands on your money.

They restrict communications – The catfisher will say they cannot or do not use Skype, Facetime or any other face-to-face communications. They prefer to stick with email and online chat.

They quickly profess their love for you – The con artist will likely shower you with praise and say you are the perfect person they’ve been looking for and attempt to push the relationship to the next level.

They often make the first ‘investment’ – They may send you a gift to gain your confidence.

They avoid meeting you – The con artist has no interest in meeting you or having you see who they really are. If they don’t want to meet you, cancel dates or are otherwise elusive, it may be a sign that you should move on to someone else.

They “need your help” – That means they want your money. The catfisher may say there has been a family or personal tragedy and make an urgent appeal to borrow some money from their victim. They may even ask for money for a plane ticket to visit you. Once they have what they want, they disappear – and so does your money.

Connecticut Better Business Bureau offers tips to help protect yourself from catfishing:

Research them – Try to verify any claims about where they live or work, or what they do for a living. Check their profile photo on google image search to see if the person on the other side of the internet is who he or she claims to be.

Meet them first – Get together for coffee in a well-lit place during the day. If you have plans to meet, consider bringing along a friend.

Control the communications – After a few exchanges on a dating site, if you like them, it’s time to move it to the telephone and finally, face to face. If they resist, it is a bad sign, regardless of whether they are catfishing or not.

Keep your information safe – Decline giving out your telephone number until you feel safe, and don’t reveal your address, even if they offer to pick you up for a date.

Don’t leave your drink unattended – For the first few dates, take your drink with you if you have to go to the washroom or order a new one, to prevent a date from drugging your drink.For the majority of us, St. Valentine’s Day is a time of joy, to celebrate and show our affection and love.