Humans are social creatures. This means that, for the most part, we like to have companionship— other people with whom we can share our daily lives. Often, this is beneficial; it gives our communities an opportunity to grow, innovate, share resources, start families, and etc. But, occasionally, our social nature can be manipulated. Because people develop feelings of accountability to their companions, we can also be susceptible to emotional manipulation. Certain types of fraud can be perpetrated by individuals who pose as companions, develop an inauthentic relationship with a target, emotionally groom the target, and then ask for money or personal data. This is theft. But if you freely give your money or information to another person, even if they are deceiving you, you will be liable for those losses.
These types of crimes are often referred to as Sweetheart Scams because they revolve around an artificial emotional connection. With increasing opportunity to create relationships online, the Sweetheart Scam is becoming more and more prevalent. If you’re looking for companionship, especially online, watch for the following red flags to ensure you are not a target of fraud.
Individuals Who Live or Work Remotely
While not necessarily a warning sign on its own, many scammers assume personas that are physically out-of-reach. Living or working remotely enables a scammer to develop a relationship with someone without the expectation of meeting in-person. For this reason, many scammers will build personas around a lifestyle that maintains physical distance. For example, a scammer may claim to be in the military, to travel constantly for work, to work remotely at an oil well, or even to have a medical or advocacy position overseas. Establishing an intimate relationship with someone you can’t meet is a red flag.
Again, long distance relationships are not always indicative of deception, but it is a warning sign. It’s easier for a scammer to deceive you when you can’t see who they are and there’s little expectation to meet in-person.
The Relationship Becomes Personal Too Quickly
Intimate relationships take time to develop. If someone instigates excessive communication with you or shares personal feelings that aren’t inline with the depth of your relationship (for example, professing love or dependence after only a few conversations), this could be a manipulation tactic. Sweetheart scammers will attempt to lock you into emotional responsibility in order to take advantage of your compassion, sympathy or even your desire for affirmation or friendship. If someone attempts to accelerate your relationship unusually quickly, mark it as a red flag.
Online Profiles Lack History or Personality
Most of us have a social media presence where we represent the best parts of ourselves online. This is a major part of our modern social structure and, in many cases, you can form a fairly accurate impression of an individual’s life, personality, values and etc by reviewing a social profile. If you encounter a situation where a social profile has very little information pointing to a legitimate history as a person or to their ties to others, it could be a warning sign.
Of course, not everyone uses social media in the same ways so while a sparse profile doesn’t always equate to deception, when coupled with other suspicious behaviors, it may reveal a false identity. A predator can easily frame a neutral social media account into a reflection of the qualities you want in a companion.
Your “Sweetheart” Has Recently Experienced Something Traumatic
Sweetheart scammers manipulate your emotions. Through triggering a pity response, they gain an emotional advantage from where they can more easily coerce specific behaviors from their target, usually generosity. If a “new friend” has recently experienced a heavy personal loss like an accident, death or illness and they need your help to recover financially, it’s likely a scam. Personal tragedies do happen, but always be cautious when gifting or lending money and never give your personal information to others. If a “sweetheart” needs you to send cash or account details so they can cover heartbreaking medical expenses or the funeral costs for an unexpected death, it’s a big red flag.
Small Asks that Get Bigger
If someone asks you for small acts of help or service, it’s easy to say yes. If this happens inordinately often, however, you can become conditioned to agreeing to help that person, even as their requests become increasingly involved or expensive. You might even look forward to the satisfaction of helping that person. Why? Because helping is a good thing! But emotional manipulators know that helping others creates a positive emotional response and they’ll use that reaction to their advantage.
Sweetheart scammers may bait you with requests for small acts of service before cornering you into a disproportionate request, one that, although often inappropriate, you feel obligated to fulfill. This is a trap. Be cautious and remember that your generosity is not an obligation. Never share your personal or financial details with others.
Your “Sweetheart” Needs Money
Everyone falls on hard times, but most of us wouldn’t ask others to send us cash– especially not someone who isn’t a longtime friend or family member. If someone asks you to wire money, send money orders, cashier’s checks or gift cards, to reload cash cards or etc, you may be a victim of a scam.
Sadly, pleas for monetary help are a often a signal that a “Sweetheart” is deceiving you. If your “friend” needs cash quickly (often as a result of a traumatic experience) or your “friend” needs money so they can travel to see you in-person, they may actually be preying on your emotions and and manipulating your generosity. Be very careful about giving or lending money and never share your financial or social security information with anyone online.
Your “Sweetheart” Wants to Give You Money
While we all want to believe that miracles do happen, if an exorbitantly wealthy person wants to share a fortune with you– all you have to do is one simple favor and also send your account details (or other personal information)– it’s a scam. Never, ever share your financial or personal information online.
Similarly, if a new “friend” wants to deposit funds into your account, for any reason, don’t allow it. Even if someone says you can keep $200 of their $1000 paycheck if you just transfer them the remaining $800, don’t do it! This is a trick and you will lose your money.
Remember, most of the time, people don’t want to give their money away. If someone uses a monetary payoff as an incentive for you to share your personal data, don’t take the bait; it’s almost certainly a scam.
Your “Sweetheart” Can’t Talk on the Phone or Meet in-Person
Sweetheart Scams always include elements of deception, often related to who the scammer is and where they’re located. If you’re forming a relationship with someone who reveals very little about themselves, who won’t speak with you outside of written communication or won’t meet with you in person, these are indications that the individual is not who they say they are.
If a person attempts to create a personal relationship with you but won’t speak or meet, the chances you’re being targeted are much higher.
If you’re suspicious, do your due diligence and be careful. Scammers are good, but your instincts are good, too. Watch for the signs of scam behavior, don’t engage with people who trigger red flags, and never share your personal or financial details with an unverified person. If you have freely given your money or data to a scammer, you are liable for all losses incurred.
Have You Been Targeted?
If you suspect you’ve interacted with a scammer online, you can report that user to the social channel where you met. If you have been a victim of a Sweetheart-type scam, you can report your experience to fraud.org.
University Federal Credit Union is here to keep our members prepared and protected. If you have any questions about your data, your safety or setting up an account with UFCU, please contact us at any time. We’re here for you.