Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Creating a Three Step Online Safety Plan to Guard Against Romance Scammers

by Soraya Grant

Reading and printing out the main red flags of an online romance scammer is always a good safety precaution. Sometimes just having them next to you as a reminder can help you see them in online communications. Here are three more steps you can take as part of an online safety plan.

Establish a "no secrets" pact with someone you can trust

Team up with someone you know well and know offline. Make a promise that you will not keep any online friendships or relationships a secret from each other. When you meet someone new, make a note of where you met them, their screen name, and the age, gender, location, real name, career, picture or appearance details, and other basic information they give you. Text or email this information to your trusted confidant. As the online relationship progresses, keep your trusted offline person posted. This does not mean you need to email or text them every time you log on to the site or talk to your online friend, but you do need to tell them what type of relationship you are having with this person, how often you communicate with them, and any red flags or other suspicious details that may come up. The person you choose can be family member, close friend, roommate, or coworker, but it is absolutely vital that you choose someone you can be completely open and honest with about the nature of your online communications. If there is nobody in your life who you feel you can trust this way, talk about the issue with a therapist or other mental health professional and promise yourself you will tell them about any online relationships you may form. Although we are not people you know offline, Scams of the Heart members are also willing to listen to anyone who needs to talk about online friendships and share any concerns they may have.

Making sure you are open and honest with at least one other person helps combat the social isolation scammers often use to manipulate their victims. It can also be helpful to hear the views of someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation. They may be able to clearly see red flags you are not allowing yourself to see.

Make it an absolute rule that you will never send money, send items, do chores or errands involving money, or accept and/or reship packages from ANYONE you have not met offline and gotten to know well in at least one offline setting.

That's it. There are NO exceptions to this rule. It doesn't matter if you think this person may be your dream man or woman, if the two of you have shared secrets, or if the two of you have swapped explicit messages or photos. This rule is never broken. Anyone who really is a genuine and decent person will not ask for or hint for this type of favor from someone they only know online and anyone who does drop hints or makes outright requests for this type of favor is definitely a scammer. It doesn't matter if everything else the person tells you turns out to be completely true; if they are online pretending to date you, fall in love with you, become your best friend, or even have a crush on you when what they really want out of you is money, material goods, or favors, the situation is a scam.

Make a list of your own vulnerabilities.

This will be a journaling exercise. Open up a free online journal account or a new document on your computer desktop or buy a notebook if you prefer to write on paper. Those who are more visually oriented might want to make an offline collage or use a secret board on Pinterest or a photo album on Facebook set so that only they can see it. Whatever form you choose, it is important to be honest and balanced. This is neither a self-esteem building exercise where you only list or post your good qualities, nor is it a self improvement session where you write down your every flaw. Scammers prey on strengths, neutral details, and weaknesses.

Is there an issue you always want to help out with, such as children in need, domestic violence, or animal welfare? That is a wonderful trait, but it is also something a scammer could easily learn about you and attempt to exploit to get you to do their bidding. Do you have a crush on one or more celebrities or a specific physical type? There is nothing wrong with this, just make a note of it in case you find yourself tempted to overlook red flags because the person is "your dream guy/girl." Are you struggling with something right now? Do you have trouble seeing yourself as smart, fun, physically attractive, interesting, or kind?

Every human being has weaknesses and every scammer practices finding those weaknesses and using them to manipulate their victims. Keep your list of traits a scammer might exploit in mind as you talk to your online friend. If you notice them repeatedly touching on one or more of these areas, chances are they have learned this information about you through your online chats or social pages and are using it as part of a scam.

Anyone who sees the red flags of a romance scam, has an offline friend who expresses alarm about their online relationship, or feels that someone they talk to online is gathering and exploiting aspects of their personality is encouraged to join us in our Yahoo group and/or chat room.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Five Myths About the Victims of Romance Scams

By Soraya Grant
Sometimes, the healing process is slowed down because we believe one or more of the myths about people who are victimized by romance scammers. This can lead to giving yourself a mental beat down you wouldn't inflict on your worst enemy. See how many of the following false statements you find popping into your head.

Myth 1: These types of scams only happen to naive people. You must be the type that believes everybody about everything if you fell for a romance scam.

Reality: Romance scams do happen to naive people. They also happen to cynical people and to people with a perfectly balanced sense of faith in others. Scammers study profiles, chat room dialogue, emails, and social networking pages to form a profile for each of their victims. If someone does seem to be naive, the scammer will certainly use that, but scammers also know how to manipulate a cynical person into believing their story is real.

Myth 2: Romance scam victims spend their entire life communicating with people they only know online. If you would just make some friends you could spend time with in person you wouldn't wind up talking to romance scammers.

Reality: People have been targetted by romance scammers during their first tries on dating sites or their first experience in a chatroom. Scammers who are out for money or for a general sense of revenge on the world go after anyone and everyone who communicates with them once. Scammers who target individuals for personal revenge use online environments because they are easier to hide in than offline environments. Some romance scam victims are people who live online, some mix online and offline communities, and some barely touch their computers outside of work.

Myth 3: Posting sexy photos online, flirting with everyone who is (or seems to be) attractive, and telling a lot of dirty jokes or talking about dating and intimate activity a lot draws scammers. If you were a little more humble and didn't spend so much time trying to show everybody how hot you are, they wouldn't have noticed you.

Reality: Scammers who are working for money or for a general sense of revenge fish for victims at random. It may seem like they "chose" you, but that is only because once you began communicating with them, they began tailoring the scam to you. There is nothing on your profile, chat dialogue, or social networking site that "made" the scammer notice you or pick you. If someone you know offline, or have had previous encounters with online, targeted you for a scam for personal revenge, that shows them to be a cruel and immature person who deals with their negative feelings by harming others. It says nothing about your character.

Myth 4: Romance scam victims have a general sense of low self worth, or at least struggle with believing men or women find them physically attractive. If you would just be more confident, these scammers wouldn't be able to manipulate you.

Reality: Romance scammers are happy to use self image struggles to manipulate their victims. They are also ready, willing, and able to scam people whose self image is inflated in one or more areas, and those with balanced and realistic views of themselves. Scammers are skilled at learning both their victims' weak and strong points and manipulating them to brainwash the person into believing they have really entered into a romantic relationship with someone online.

Myth 5: People who say they have been " online romance scammed" or "catfished" are just being dramatic. Everybody dates and/or befriends people they later realize are up to no good, both online and offline. It really isn't any big deal.

Reality: Romance scammers go far beyond the run of the mill jerk or creepy person that seemed nice at first. These scams involve brainwashing and humiliation, and in many cases, severe financial losses. Some scam victims even face legal problems. Being the victim of an online romance scam does not have to ruin your life. There is hope, and there is healing, and there is more out there for you than being the target of a romance scam. But it is serious and something that will take time to cope with.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Researching the Red Flags

by Soraya Grant

Memorizing a list of the seven main red flags of a romance scam is helpful, but many people have a hard time believing their online love is not who they say they are until they have done some independent research.

Red Flag 1: The person makes a declaration of love, asks you to date them, or even declares you their best friend after knowing you for a short time and only online.

Look deeper into this situation by stating flat out that you consider everyone you only know online and via the phone a friend and will not make any romantic promises or include anyone in your family or inner circle until you have gotten to know them in a variety of situations, at least one of which absolutely must be offline, off the phone, and in person. You needn't be harsh. A simple, "I am very flattered you're flirting with me, but I never date anyone until we've gotten to know each other offline and off the phone" should get the point across. A person who acts upset, insulted, or continues talking of love and devotion is a scammer.

Red Flag 2: Your online friend asks for money, asks for a laptop, cell phone, or other gifts, or wants you to do banking related favors for them.

Never go along with this. It is never safe to send money or gifts to someone you have never met offline and in person. It is also unsafe to accept money or items from someone you only know online and over the phone for any reason, or to do any banking tasks for them. Asking or hinting for money is a sure sign of a scammer. If you still need to prove this to yourself, offer your friend your time and effort instead. If they've asked you to send cash because they are stuck in a foreign country and cannot access their American bank account, send them their bank's contact number for international transactions so they can speak to a customer service representative and get the situation resolved. Offer to send an online friend who says she cannot afford the new cell phone she needs the number for the Lifeline program in her area. Provide a list of soup kitchens, food banks, and the WIC, TANF, and EBT programs in their area to the person who tells you stories of struggling to feed children or pay bills. A genuine, honest person would use these resources and stop asking or hinting for things. Anyone who claims they got nowhere with all the information you sent, tried that already and couldn't get any help, acts confused, or keeps asking for or hinting for money, gifts, or financial favors is a scammer.

Red Flag 3: The man or woman you are talking to mentions an upcoming business trip or any other connection to Nigeria, Ghana, or another west African country or nation of the former U.S.S.R.

Like asking or hinting for money, this is a sure sign of a scammer.  You can also be a hundred per cent sure you are talking to an organized scam ring located in the country they mention. Anyone who remains reluctant to believe this is a scam need only to contact someone in their local community who does the same type of work the online friend describes. If your friend claims to be an American construction worker who is stuck in Nigeria after traveling there to build an apartment complex, call or email a construction company or someone you know who works in construction and ask them how many times they or a coworker have travelled to Nigeria to build apartment buildings. You will find the answer to be "never." Some may tell you they are going to Nigeria or another nation in that region or the former Soviet Union to visit family or friends. Research this by reading over the stories on "Scams of the Heart" and talking to group members in the chat room and the yahoo group board. Note the number of people who were scammed after talking to someone with a connection to Nigeria, Ghana, etc. What are the odds that this many people in online communities really have legitimate reasons to go to this part of the world?

Red Flag 4: The person talks in an unusual manner. He or she may have an unexpected accent over the phone, type using strikingly incorrect grammar, or seem to change tone of voice from one conversation to the next. You notice a lot of repeated lines.

Scammers typically have ready excuses for these things. They claim their grandparents or family friends were from another country and they picked up their speech patterns, insist the obviously cut and pasted paragraph was done intentionally as a joke, and say their repeated line is just something they like to say. It is also not uncommon for them to act offended that you would question them. Anyone tempted to believe these excuses need only to do some basic linguistics research. Compare their typed dialogue to those of known Nigerian or Russian scammers. Visit YouTube and search for some videos of people from those nations speaking English and compare their accents. If you have a Nigerian or Russian scammer, you will find shocking similarities. American scammers will be a little harder to spot with this red flag, as they will not have difficulties communicating in English. But American scammers do often use repeated lines and cut and paste dialogue. This helps them to set verbal bait and to talk to more than one person without admitting it. Look deeper into this by reading over some of your own emails and chat logs with other people and comparing them to the patterns in your online friend's dialogue. If the grammar and accent is as expected, but you see oddly repeated lines or repeated lines in strange situations, you have an American scammer. For example, one person encountered in a chat room devoted to health issues would say some version of "It has been a hard couple of years since my wife died, but I am ready to date again" any time a new female member joined the online community. While this would not be a red flag if spoken to a good friend over coffee, it is an odd thing to repeat, and an even odder thing to say to a new group member. This person was later discovered to be pretending that at least three online group members were the first person he fell in love with after the death of his wife.

Red Flag Five: An online love interest does not seem to be living the life they are presenting. Perhaps they look different from one photo to the next, seem unfamiliar with a place they claim to live, know little to nothing about a career or hobby they state they are involved in, or seem to have odd schedules, or too much or too little time to chat given the life they claim to lead. Changing pasts or suddenly changing values, tastes, and opinions should also be cause for concern.

Photos can be researched by using a reverse image search web site. Visit one of these sites, drop or copy the photos the person has shown you or sent you into the space according to instructions, and see if the photos have been posted to someone else's web page or account. You may also want to study scam fighting web sites and look over some of the known scammer photos in the albums. Beyond that, pretend you are your own friend, and use a journal or other private place to write to make a list of questions you would have about these details if this were someone else. These can be as simple as "If he's a lawyer, how come he couldn't explain that term I heard on a television show?" or "How is it possible to have trouble attracting women one day, but have been with more than he can count the next?" Once your list is complete, share it with someone besides the person you are questioning. Have a close friend, family member, therapist, or peer counselor discuss the list with you. If one or both of you see details that "don't add up" you have a scammer.

Red Flag Six: Your online boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend reminds you of yourself or someone you have mentioned online a lot....a bit too much.

Your own web sites and online actions will provide the research material for this red flag. Examine or remember your conversations in the main room of a chat room, your talks with the person in question, and any chats you've had with someone else on the same site. Look over your Facebook, Google Circles, Twitter, and Pinterest pages, as well as any profile you have on any dating sites, health support groups, or hobby pages. Could the person have learned any of these details through any of these avenues? If so, there is a good chance they did, and adapted their online persona in order to pretend to be your ideal match. Remember they can be crafty about this. It is not always immediately obvious. One SOTH member couldn't believe her luck when she unexpectedly met a new online friend who reminded her of a former crush and friend who had broken her heart. They had the same politics, drove the same type of car, and both liked to crack raunchy jokes. She was even more delighted when this new friend appeared to be a kinder, more down to earth version of this former crush. She later realized that this "kinder, more down to earth person who reminded her of a former crush" was really a scammer. He, and possibly others who were in on the scam, had crafted the fake persona by noting all the things she missed about her former crush/friend and all the things that upset her about him, and planning their trap accordingly.

Red Flag Seven: The person appears to be trying make you focus exclusively on them. They might plan a big, romantic trip for the two of you, and encourage you to work overtime or get an extra job to save up for it rather than spending time with your family or friends. The person may encourage you to spend a lot of time researching houses for the two of you to live in or learning about a hobby or interest of theirs. Demanding that you constantly change your routine, give up plans with others, or pushing you to make changes in your appearance or habits to please them are more examples of this red flag, as is forbidding you to talk to certain people or acting upset when you do, or insisting the entire relationship be kept a secret for no clear reason.

Researching this red flag will take the form of reflection. Perfectly normal online and offline relationships of all levels have some of these elements. There is nothing odd or wrong about wanting someone to go on a trip with you, do some research for you, or calling or texting late. We have all had boyfriends/girlfriends or close friends who do this. It is also perfectly normal for friends and dating partners to keep secrets. Telling you you cannot talk to others, or manipulating you into not talking to friends or family is a form of emotional abuse and always wrong, but it doesn't guarantee a scammer. This is still a major red flag because it is also a mind control tactic scammers use to make you more susceptible to believing their lies, keep you too busy to question them, and keep you away from others who might point out something they don't want you to notice. Make note of any of these types of details as you examine the other red flags. If this behavior is present along with one or more of the other red flags, you have a scammer. Should these types of demands on your time become extreme, or if the person is trying to make you feel guilty or ashamed for having other friends or talking to certain people, insisting you change your tastes and appearance to please them, or pushing you to spend large amounts of your free time doing things for them, this is an emotionally abusive and dangerous person, even if they turn out to be completely genuine.