More than anything else, a generous heart makes a person vulnerable to con artists who ply their trade on dating websites, C. Steven Baker of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), said.
"It doesn't seem to matter on age. It doesn't seem to matter on gender," said Baker, director of the FTC's Midwest Region. "The common denominator is the victims tend to be people who believe in real, true love."
People looking for their soulmate have long been the target of criminals who win their trust and then hit them up for a loan or suggest they invest in a sure thing.
But while these criminals once were limited to finding potential victims by advertising for pen pals or frequenting places where wealthy people gather, dating sites and chat rooms offer a much wider field of potential victims and a much quicker way to communicate.
Con artists also use the Internet to rip off consumers and people who offer professional services.
For example, criminals posing as residents of foreign countries send unsolicited e-mails to attorneys in the United States offering a hefty fee in return for collecting a settlement.
Attorneys who agree to take on these matters ultimately receive a counterfeit check to cover their fee and the settlement funds they already forwarded to the client.
In another kind of scheme, criminals used personal data obtained from payday loan websites to net millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains over the past couple of years, Baker said.
He said people in India posing as debt collectors telephoned U.S. residents and threatened them with arrest, litigation or the loss of employment if they did repay loans they had not received or amounts they did not owe.
Last week, the FTC filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in federal court in Chicago accusing Varang K. Thaker and two Villa Park, Calif., companies he owns — American Credit Crunchers LLC and Ebeeze LLC — of conducting the alleged scheme. Federal Trade Commission v. American Credit Crunchers LLC, et al., No. 12 C 1028.
U.S. District Judge Ronald A. Guzman issued a temporary restraining order freezing Thaker's and the companies' assets and barring them from engaging in any deceptive acts while attempting to collect alleged debts.
A hearing on the FTC's motion for a preliminary injunction is set for Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow Jr.
The lead attorney for the FTC is Elizabeth C. Scott.
Professor Lori B. Andrews of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law said criminals nowadays can obtain information about potential targets from the targets themselves.
"Social networks have made it more likely that con artists can locate potential victims, but they also have made it more likely that different kinds of crimes can be committed," Andrews said.
Andrews wrote the newly published book "I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy."
She said a growing number of criminals use "cyber casing" in planning their illegal activities.
For example, a slew of home burglaries occurred in New Hampshire by thieves who learned through Facebook that the victims were on vacation, Andrews said.
In an unrelated incident, Andrews said, a woman who posted a photograph of herself wearing her new engagement ring became the target of criminals.
"Some people don't realize that when they post photos taken on their iPhones, embedded in that photo is the location where the photo was taken," Andrews said.
Andrews said genealogical websites act as another source of information mined by con artists.
Someone in Florida collected enough data about people who recently died to file tax returns under their names and obtain their refunds, Andrews said.
Andrews and Baker said individuals can take steps to protect themselves from con artists.
People should learn what kind of information they reveal when using various types of technology, Andrews said.
She said consumers should ask lenders, credit card companies and other businesses how they intend to use the personal information they ask the consumer to disclose.
And consumers should refrain from using information available on a social network page as a password or the answer to a security question, Andrews said.
Baker said consumers who receive calls demanding repayment of a loan should ask the caller to verify the debt in writing.
"If it is a debt you don't owe, don't pay," Baker said. "Do hang up and complain."
Consumers may file complaints with the FTC at ftc.gov.
Baker said victims of dating scams often are reluctant to report the crime. These victims usually are embarrassed, he said.
And he said another emotion may play a role for people who believed they found their one true love online.
"They've really made a total emotional commitment and they have a hard time, often, believing that they've been defrauded," Baker said.