$50 Million Lost To Online Romance Scammers Annually

A just-released report shows how fake debt collectors, fake state troopers, and fake soulmates are responsible for a new wave of highly complicated online scams.

Forget your broken heart and wounded pride. The true cost of Internet romance scams is $50,399,536.16, the amount of losses reported by Americans in 2011 to the The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a low-key quasi-project of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center.

Women constituted more than $39 million of the losses, with the most vulnerable segments of the population being specifically women in their fifties and over the age of 60; however, even within that group, women in their fifties are more likely to hand over large sums of money to scammers than their older counterparts. As the IC3 soberly puts it, the scammers “use poetry, flowers and other gifts to reel in victims, while declaring 'undying love.'" Then, of course, the PayPal payments and checks start arriving.

The IC3 is one of the nation's top authorities on cybercrime, and each year it releases an annual report that details the latest trends in online fraud. Unlike most government reports, the IC3's annual Internet crime report is an engrossing read that melds the craziest parts of Elmore Leonard, David Pogue, and inbox spam into a coherent whole.

In addition to outlining details of complaints about online romance schemes, the report states that work-from-home scams are the most prevalent form of Internet fraud in America after stolen credit card numbers. More than 17,000 Americans reported victimization by work-from-home scams last year--and lost over $20 million in the process. Unscrupulous criminals, often based in Nigeria, Russia, or elsewhere, use Craigslist, Monster.com, newspaper classifieds, and other outlets to rope the naïve unemployed into envelope-stuffing or financial services “jobs” that are really fronts for money laundering and identity theft. In one case highlighted by the IC3, a woman in Long Beach, California was arrested by police on suspicion of facilitating the U.S. operations of a Nigerian work-from-home scam. The woman would allegedly accept packages, sell the contents, retain 20% of the profits and then wire the remaining funds back to unknown suspects in Nigeria. All the victims “had posted their resumes or ads online seeking job opportunities.”

Other scams are just plain ingenious. More than 70 New York residents received emails from a spoofed nyc.gov email address that claimed to be from the New York State Police. The New Yorkers, who apparently failed to realize that the New York State Police were unlikely to send mail from a New York City government Internet email addresses, were told they had an outstanding traffic ticket to pay. Payment was supposed to be sent to an address in the upstate town of Chatham Hall--which does not exist. What did exist, however, were the malware-loaded file attachments recipients were instructed to download for “antivirus” purposes.

The Internet is also the perfect place to build a sketchy business empire with numerous fraud opportunities. IC3 officials noted the bizarre saga of Donald Lapre, whose infomercials for “the greatest vitamin in the world” regularly appeared on late-night television. Lapre encouraged out-of-work Americans or folks seeking to start home businesses to sell his vitamins over the Internet; more than 226,000 victims lost a collective $51.8 million in investments. Lapre, who later committed suicide in federal custody, was accused of 41 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, promotional money laundering, and transactional money laundering. Participants in Lapre's home business projects were essentially hustled into buying expensive online advertising and marketing products.

One of the fastest-growing Internet scams is also tied to the ongoing economic crisis. Nearly 10,000 loan intimidation scams were reported to the IC3 in 2011. In these scams, callers--armed with a person's date of birth, address, employer phone number, bank account numbers, and names and telephone numbers of relatives and friends--call victims' homes, mobile phones, and workplaces demanding that they repay a delinquent payday loan.

Of course, the payday loan in question never existed. The fake debt collectors often claim to be representatives of the FBI or ”Federal Legislative Department,” and threaten arrest or physical violence if the mark doesn't pay up. Although the IC3 doesn't specify how the extortionists obtained detailed personal information on their victims, they strongly suggest that the scam architects built fraudulent online applications for loans and credit cards that the unsuspecting victims filled out.

The IC3 compiles their data through complaints filed directly by victims with the organization, complaints filed by Internet crime analysts working with open- and closed-source public information databases, and complaints filed by law enforcement personnel. Their annual reports are believed to underestimate the amount of annual Internet fraud due to the “shame factor” many scam victims feel.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

[Image: Flickr user theperplexingparadox]

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