(MoneyWatch) , who recently admitted that he continued referring to his purportedly dead girlfriend even after he realized the relationship was likely a hoax, isn't the only one to get caught up in a relationship scam. Indeed, experts at payments firm MoneyGram say they uncover several dozen similar scams every day.
Romance scams have actually become the most common wire transfer fraud, accounting for about 20 percent of the criminal activity uncovered by MoneyGram's fraud department, said Kim Garner, senior vice president of global security and investigations.
Typically, Garner said, relationship scams last only a matter of months. But that may be because the normal victim is being hit up for cash within weeks of the first contact. Within a few months, the average victim has been convinced to send upwards of $9,000 to the con artist. Although many victims forge such a close tie with the criminal that they refer to the faux romantic partner as their fiance or even spouse, it's rare that victims have the ability to communicate over the phone, as Te'o claims he did.
In most cases, the people perpetrating a romance scam will find a reason to tell their target that they can't speak in person because of a time difference, a phone problem or work. Since MoneyGram launched its fraud department in mid-2010, they've returned roughly $40 million to victims of bogus romances.
"This is really one of the most deplorable scams because they target widows and widowers and other people who are lonely and vulnerable," Garner said. Then they play on the victim's weaknesses to build an emotional bond so strong that the victim will often offer to help the con artist with whatever economic challenge they purport to have.
How do romance scams start and what are the warning signs that you might be caught up in one?
Most often the initial contact between victim and romance scammer is made online, often at a dating site. The big sites, such as Match.com, will pull down profiles if they suspect abuse. But smaller sites and bereavement chat rooms, where widows and widowers attempt to console each other, are prime hunting grounds for con artists, who hope to play on a victims emotions to ply them for cash.
The red flags in such schemes:
Distance: The first rule of a romance scam has to be that the online lover is too far away from the target to meet in person. That justifies the online nature of the romance and helps the fraudster overcome the victim's skepticism about why they're becoming so close without ever having met.
Time differences: The victim, once hooked, is likely to want to talk on the phone. The most common reason you can't? The bogus romantic partner lives overseas and the time differences are so great that it's impossible to find a reasonable hour to speak. If the victim is willing to stay up late or get up in the middle of the night to talk, the con artist may come up with another excuse, such as their phone won't accept long-distance calls or they're in an awkward living arrangement that makes it hard for them to use the phone. Or they may purport to have some work challenge that prevents them from having a schedule that's predictable enough to be reached in person.
Control: The scammer will usually initiate the contact and is likely to be in control of the contact from start to finish, providing limited information about how he or she can be reached by you.
Rapid relationship. Within weeks, often within days, the scammer is likely to profess their love for the mark -- and look for a similar commitment in return.
Boudoir photos: Victims are frequently asked to send photographs -- the sexier the better. The victim is told that this is because their romantic partner just wants to fantasize about them. In reality, these photos are often used later, once the victim is tired of being scammed, to extort cash when the victim is no longer willing to send money voluntarily.
Disaster central: Once the victim is hooked, the fake romantic partner almost always has some challenge/crisis/accident that requires economic help from the victim. The stories vary based on the fabrications already used in the relationship, but it could be that the bogus partner's child becomes ill. Or, like Te'o's girlfriend, the romantic interest herself (or himself) is in an accident or has a debilitating -- but curable -- disease, such as leukemia. Victims are told that they can help by transferring money to the con artist.
Method of payment: By and large, the criminals want money to be wired to them. Why? Unlike a credit card transaction, or even a check, once money is wired, it's like cash. You can't stop payment and the con artist can pick it up and disappear without a trace.
If you're being asked to send money to a romantic partner you've never met, terminate the relationship immediately, Garner advised. It is almost certainly a scam. "It's really painful. When we stop a transaction, the victims are crying and upset," Garner said. "They can't believe that the person they're sending money to is a crook."
It's worth noting that MoneyGram has lists of crooks who have received money from dozens of victims. There are also websites dedicated to halting romance scams that maintain similar lists. However, don't think just because your long-distance romantic partner isn't on the list that they're clean. The names and email addresses of romance scammers are quickly changed when they get caught, Garner said. New romantic identities can be created in minutes.