Beware of red flags an online love interest wants to steal more than your heart

Federal Trade Commission warns scam artists prey online using love as a pretense to scam

(Laura Nubuck/SXC)

Online dating may be an easy convenient way to meet potential dates, but experts warn there are red flags that a potential love interest could be looking to steal more than your heart.

The reputation of online dating took a hit recently when a California man was accused of raping a woman he met on a Christian singles website.

Police near San Diego said Sean Banks, 37, may have used different aliases online to meet women.   Investigators said he was able to gain the confidence of one woman who felt comfortable enough to invite him into her residence.

Banks is accused of assaulting the woman in her La Mesa home last fall.   Police said it was the first time the two had met in person.

Banks was taken into custody on February 11 and  booked on several charges including rape by force, digital penetration by force and residential burglary.

The Federal Trade Commission warns people should be aware of red flags that there could be a problem when dating online.

Bill Efron the northeast regional director for the Federal Trade Commission said one red flag can be someone claiming they love you early into the relationship.

"Claiming instant feelings of love, claiming to be from the United States but currently overseas," said Efron.

Efron said scam artists can prey online using love as a way to lure victims.

"In a typical scenario, a scam artist sets up a fake profile online on a dating site, gains the trust of an online love interest and then asks that person to send them money via wire transfer, usually to a location outside the United States. Victims could be taken for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.  And that's why the most important thing to remember is do not wire money to someone you haven't met. This is like sending cash, once it's gone, it cannot be recovered," said Efron.

Efron said another red flag is wanting to leave the dating website immediately in favor of using personal e-mail accounts or instant messaging accounts.

Others recommend always meeting in a public place and consider having a friend nearby just in case.

The Better Business Bureau said people should be suspicious when a new "match" is unable to meet in person or makes plans to meet and then cancels because of a personal issue or a problem with a job, and claims to be an American who travels abroad often.

Another big red flag the BBB wants people to be aware of is if the "match" has a sudden emergency that requires you to help by wiring money.  The BBB said the problem is often with travel, medical emergencies, hospital bills for a loved one, being a victim of crime or a temporary financial setback.

To avoid online dating scams the BBB recommends the following:

Do your homework about a website by speaking to other members or customers about their experiences.  You can also check a business through the Better Business Bureau's review of the service.

Don't give in to high-pressure sales tactics and read a contract carefully before committing to it.

Know how to end your relationship with the company and understand the cancellation policy.  Check to make sure you will not be automatically renewed once the contract expires.

The BBB said some online profiles are connected to scammers overseas which can make it tough for police to investigate or recovery lost money.

The Better Business Bureau wants people to realize some online profiles can be fake.  It is called catfishing, which the BBB said is a new label for an old scam.

The scam is in the spotlight again in light of Manti Te'o, the Notre Dame football star, reportedly falling victim to a fake profile hoax.   He said he fell in love, but his online girlfriend's profile was fake.

Catfishing is when someone pretends to be someone they're not on social media or dating websites. 

These people use deception as a way to gain romantic attention, personal information or even financial support.  The BBB has also referred to this as a  "sweetheart scam."

The BBB said the following are red flags of this type of scam:

• Only communicate through email, instant message and cell phone.
• Never able to physically meet you in person.
• Charming, understanding, flattering, sensitive, caring.
• Has a career or life circumstances that takes him or her overseas (i.e. military).
• Is quick to develop the relationship and talk of love.
• Has a young child, typically a boy or girl between the ages of 5 and 12.
• Has a sudden emergency, often involving the child's health.
• Has a reason they cannot get their money and needs your help.

The Better Business Bureau said to watch out because if you help them once, they will often need more money and if you have no money they will find a "client" to send you money orders with instructions to wire the money to them. 

The BBB said the money orders or checks are counterfeit.   Once money is wired, it is very difficult if not impossible to get it back.