In order to find out more information about Julia's scammer, Sid visited a website that reports information about online dating cons. There he found the alleged con man listed, along with several of his aliases. Sid says the handsome, blond man Julia thought was her boyfriend is actually a model who isn't involved in the scam. "What scammers do is they steal photos from online modeling sites," Sid says.
Each month, thousands of people—men and women—get caught in similar traps, Sid says, and the scammers know how to work their victims. "From the outside you may say, 'How did she fall for that?' But you heard Julia. She was being wooed every day—e-mails before work, after work. [She] probably expressed that she liked children. He has an orphanage," Sid says.
Sid says the scam artists often pose as rich American or British businessmen living overseas who charm their victims, gain their trust and then have some sort of financial need—often money for surgery or passport cash to fly to the United States and get married. He says the con artists claim to be paid in U.S. postal money orders and ask the victims to cash them and wire over the cash. "Once you send the money, you don't hear from them. Or they're brazen enough to actually call you and say, 'I scammed you,'" Sid says.
Julia says the victims can be any age, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, and scam artists target them in many different venues—from dating websites to gaming chat rooms. According to Sid, the FBI estimates that about half the victims of these kinds of scams are male. They are oftentimes conned by men posing as female Russian models.
Online buyers and sellers beware—sophisticated con artists could be watching your every move. Blakely found that out the hard way. She says she had always dreamed of getting married in a Monique Lhuillier wedding gown, but the $6,000 price tag was out of her budget. So Blakely did what a lot of cost-conscious brides do these days—she checked on eBay, and there she found her dream dress. She started bidding—all the way up to $2,400.
When the auction ended, Blakely realized she had failed to meet the minimum sale price and lost the dress. But later that day she got an e-mail from someone offering to sell her the dress at the price she had bid. "I was just ecstatic. I just couldn't believe it. I just wanted to get the dress in my hands. It was a dream come true," Blakely says. Although Blakely had a PayPal account, the person who contacted her claimed his own account had been hacked, so he asked Blakely to wire him the money instead.
Blakely wired the money right away, but she never got the dress. She later found out she had wired the money to a scammer who had been watching the bidding. "Basically from what I found out, he watches for big-ticket, emotional items," Blakely says. The scammer had sent her an e-mail that looked as though it was sent via eBay, but it was a fake, Blakely says.
Sid says many people are conned on auction sites in the same way as Blakely. "Once you leave the confines of eBay, you're kind of on your own," he says.
Rob Chestnut, who heads up eBay's fraud unit, says that's exactly what users should avoid. "Our security teams are working to keep the site itself safe, so the first thing [scammers] want to do is try to drag you away from the secure environment and get you off where they can communicate directly with you," Rob says.Get eBay's top five online safety tips.
Although Blakely paid a con artist for a dress she never received, her story does have a happy ending. "Monique Lhuillier heard my story, and because they believe in happy endings at Monique, they sent me the dress," Blakely says.
Rob says eBay—the number one online target for scam artists—has 2,000 employees around the world dedicated to stopping scammers. Many of the scams involve what is called "spoofing" or "phishing." Con artists create e-mails that look like official correspondence from eBay—right down to the eBay logo and the official fonts—and go "phishing" for your personal data.
"It's always an urgent call to action [such as], 'We've lost your information,' or 'We regret to inform you your account needs to be updated and you'll be suspended if you don't act.' That's a sense of urgency, and they always want you to click on a link in the e-mail," Rob says.
Rob says that eBay and PayPal will never send you an e-mail asking for a password, personal information or an account update. "Most responsible companies won't do that. You don't communicate securely by e-mail because of these sorts of risks," Rob says. If a company does need to contact you for some reason, Rob says, it will get to you when you sign onto its own website.
"The key to remember in these sorts of situations [is] treat e-mails like strangers," Rob says. "Just as you wouldn't give this kind of information to a stranger who knocked on your door, look at an e-mail like this." He says if you do get a suspicious e-mail, do not click on any links and delete the message.
Sid says there are things you can do to prevent yourself from falling victim to scam artists:
Get more advice from Sid on how to avoid identity theft.
- Be suspicious of any e-mail that comes from a company but has a Yahoo or a Hotmail address, instead of the company's address.
- Be suspicious of correspondence asking you for money.
- If you take a check to the bank, make sure you wait until the bank hears that the funds have been collected. Do not just let them tell you the check has cleared.
"I know we're going to get a letter from somebody saying that Nigeria has a lot of wonderful people. You don't have to send the letter," Oprah says. "We already know that. We're just talking about this particular scam that's going on. We're not talking about the entire country and everybody in the country."
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