QUINCY -- It happens to people of all ages, races, levels of education and backgrounds.
Online romantic fraud is believed to be vastly underreported, costing victims in the United States and Canada nearly $1 billion in the last three years, according to a Better Business Bureau study.
The study, released Tuesday, found that more than 1 million Americans have been victimized in the last three years, and BBB officials and law enforcement are urging anyone victimized by an online dating scam to report it.
Mara Clingingsmith, regional director for the BBB Quincy, said con artists will post fake profiles on dating sites and social media as though they are someone looking for a relationship. The profiles typically claim such attributes as strong faith, and often the person claims to be widowed with a child, or to be in the military or involved with an international business.
"These explanations provide plausible reasons for not being able to meet their victim in person," Clingingsmith said. "Once the fraudsters contact potential victims, they quickly try to move them off the dating sites to more private communications through email and text messages."
Many use scripted sets of emails to develop online relationships, with many victims receiving text messages daily, and work on isolating victims from friends or family who might alert them that they are involved in a fraud.
"Eventually the scammer will ask for money for a medical reason or a business emergency, or for plane fare so they can travel to come meet them," Clingingsmith said. "Those who send money will be asked for more and more. Losses can end up being in the tens of thousands of dollars."
Many people involved in the scam are too embarrassed to come forward to authorities.
"There's a lot of psychology built into this fraud, and the victims that we've talked to are bright, normal and loving people," Clingingsmith said.
With many of the scams originating outside the country, particularly in Nigeria, Adams County Sheriff Brian VonderHaar said it is difficult to prosecute many of the cases.
"However, we still have to try," VonderHaar said. "There is a chance that we can come back and help someone. It's a small chance, but the chance is there nonetheless."
Sgt. Bryan Dusch with the Quincy Police Department said officers will do what they can to help victims of the scams, even turning the case over to federal law enforcement.
"A lot of times some of these federal law enforcement resources that we reach out to, they already know who these offenders are," Dusch said. "They have a door into what we may not have experienced in Quincy."
Adams County State's Attorney Gary Farha encouraged victims of the scams to seek help from law enforcement.
"We certainly will try, and we encourage all the victims to come forward," Farha said. "Don't be embarrassed. Our staff is compassionate, and we want to help."
The BBB believes more can be done to protect consumers, such as having online dating sites contact customers who have interacted with a fraudulent profile, increasing international cooperation for prosecutions, encouraging friends and family to be cautious with online dating, and emphasizing that people should not wire money to strangers.
"We have to be vigilant with what we put on social media, what we share and what we allow our children and family members to share, because each time that we share more personal information on social media or on the internet, it just gives those people who want to fraud us more ammunition against us," Clingingsmith said.