SAN ANTONIO – Valentine's Day brings out Cupid, candy and, unfortunately, con artists who seduce vulnerable hearts online.
Consumer protection groups are warning people to be aware of the tactics that sweetheart swindlers use. The ruse typically begins on a social network, chat room or online dating site.
"They create very compelling storylines, and they take pictures of real people, which they've stolen off real social media profiles," said Miguel Segura, regional director of the Better Business Bureau San Antonio.
Last year, Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker revealed that the median loss to a romance scam victim was $2,435. The scams of the heart are some of the costliest to their victims. In 2013, victims were bilked out of $203 million, according to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Last month, a 32-year-old Wisconsin woman reported to the National Consumer League's Fraud.org project that she lost $35,000 to a sweetheart swindler. The man she'd met online and come to trust said he had to go to Africa on business. While there, he said, he fell victim to several unfortunate — and fake — events.
"No matter what the story, the request remains the same," Segura said. "They need money."
The sweetheart swindle follows the class scam formula: Establish a connection, build credibility and trust and then go for the gold.
"They are going to play on those emotions," Segura said. "We've seen it in fear through other scams. This one is love."
There are signs that you may be dealing with a rip-off Romeo, according to the Better Business Bureau. Red flags include pressure to leave the online forum and communicate through personal email or text, hasty declarations of love, talk of U.S. citizenship, travel out of the country, delays in meeting face to face and requests for money.