Those looking for companionship online should beware: Scammers are looking to win your trust and affection, so they can eventually steal your money. Victims of so-called romance scams, also known as confidence fraud, are predominantly older widowed or divorced women who, for the most part, are educated and computer literate, according to the FBI.1
Criminal groups located abroad will often troll online obituaries, looking for recently bereaved widows to target, using the personal information they find on social media to strike up a conversation. Over the course of weeks or months, the relationship can evolve into what seems like friendship and even romance. Eventually, the scammers convince you to wire them money for airfare so they can come visit—only to suddenly disappear from your life once they get the funds.
"Sadly, this is a really evil targeting of people who are incredibly vulnerable and lonely, and who are quite susceptible to fraud," Howard says.
This devastating Internet crime is growing more prevalent. In the U.S., confidence fraud accounted for the second highest financial losses of all internet-facilitated crimes in 2017, with $211 million in total reported losses, the FBI said. The law enforcement agency's Internet Crime Complaint Center said it received over 15,000 complaints last year, a nearly 6% increase over the previous year.2
Howard advises being careful with anyone you meet online, especially if they ask for money.
"You really have to question people's motives. Be aware that there are criminals on the internet who are seeking to defraud you," he says.
A tech-support representative calls you at home and tells you there's a problem with your computer that needs to be fixed right away, otherwise you'll lose your data. You didn't know you had a problem in the first place, but you listen because he's calling from a well-known company like Apple or Microsoft. So begins the typical tech-support scam.
In this con, the fraudster poses as an employee of a reputable company and tricks you into granting remote access to your device after you've paid an upfront "support" fee. Once in your system, the scammers are often just a few clicks away from breaking into your accounts and raiding your files for personal data that can be used to steal your identity and commit fraud.
In some cases, you might go months without even knowing you've been hacked, all while the scammers patiently monitor your activity. "It's like having someone secretly looking over your shoulder every time you use your computer," Howard says.
In 2017, the FBI received nearly 11,000 complaints related to tech-support fraud, with claimed losses amounting to nearly $15 million—a 90% increase from 2016.2,3
To avoid becoming a victim, install antivirus software and make sure it remains up-to-date. Software updates on your device should be set to automatic. And, above all, remember that computer service providers will never call you offering unsolicited tech support.
"Don't take phone calls from these guys," Howard warns. "One-hundred percent of the time they are a scam."
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