FBI agents warn against ‘sweetheart scams’ ahead of Valentine’s Day

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation are warning those looking for love: Protect your heart and your bank account.

Sweetheart scams are a problem happening nationwide and here in East Tennessee. The FBI says in Tennessee last year, more than $2 million was lost through romance fraud.

MORE: East Tennessee widow loses $42K in ‘sweetheart scam’

“They’re talking to you, they’re talking to several other people at a time,” FBI Special Agent Jason Pack said.

The “romance” or “sweetheart scam” starts the same: People meet online, develop a relationship and then the scammer asks for money. They generally want wire transfers, reloadable credit cards or gift cards.

“Usually, whoever sends them money first is who they kind of go with and they’ll keep making you think that they are going to come and see you or they love you, but they’re just trying to get more money out of you,” Pack said.

He says there’s not one social media site or dating app where you’re more of a target because scammers are everywhere.

“They spend time researching you when they start talking with you,” Pack said. “They try and find your social media profiles if they’re not locked down from the public, they’ll look at you, find out if you have kids or relatives and they’ll be able to talk to you about that.”

MORE: Love don’t cost a thing: Valentine’s Day romance scams

After building a bond over a few weeks or months, Pack says that’s when the scammer will be in crisis and ask for money.

“It’s best to never wire money to anyone you don’t know or send gift cards, reloadable credit cards,” he said.

If you meet someone online and see red flags:

  • Research their photos and profile to see if it’s been used anywhere else.
  • Go slow and ask lots of questions.
  • Be cautious if they promise to meet in person but then always come up with an excuse why they can’t meet.
  • Beware if they seem too perfect or quickly ask you to leave a dating service or social media site to go “offline.”

“People here in East Tennessee are trusting. They’re loving. They want to do the right thing, and I think a lot of people take advantage of those instincts,” Pack said.

He says “sweetheart scammers” are usually out of the country and there’s little U.S. and foreign law enforcement can do.

“You don’t ever get it [money] back and that’s the hard part because people lose large sums of money,” Pack said.

If you think you’re a victim of a “sweetheart scam,” stop communicating with that person immediately, talk to someone you trust and report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center by clicking here.

“We want people to steal your heart, not your pocketbook,” Pack said.

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