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.

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