The FBI has issued a warning about so-called “sweetheart scams” that have bilked many lonely hearts for billions of dollars. Last year, 18,000 people filed complaints about romance fraud with losses of $362 million, up 70% from the year before. An emerging trend in sweetheart scams is to use victims to launder money. Dubbed “money mules” by the FBI, the scam involves the cybercriminal convincing his victim to open a bank account in order to illegally transfer money for laundering or other criminal purposes. Members of the military are unknowingly being used to to create fake Facebook accounts for online romance fraud. In addition to the tips offered below by the U.S. Army to avoid romance fraud, the FBI has additional tips and warnings, along with instructions on what to do in case you are victimized. Since the days of dial-up modems, sweetheart scams have thrived on the internet. Today, Facebook is the go-to site for these types of catfishing schemes. Now, con artists are using photos of legitimate members of the U.S. Armed Forces to create imposter Facebook accounts. Scammers have swindled millions of dollars from unsuspecting victims. We’ll tell you how the scam works and what Facebook and the Pentagon are doing about it. We’ll also offer tips on how to avoid becoming a victim.

Imposter Facebook accounts spreading romance scams

Recently, Facebook proclaimed that it had taken down 2.2 billion fake accounts from its site. But the fakes — often part of scams — just keep on coming. One of the most venal of these cons is the sweetheart scam that involves unsuspecting servicemen. Here’s how it works. Scammers take photos from a legitimate serviceman’s Facebook account, create fake accounts with fake names and start targeting women. Simply by changing the name, one serviceman’s photo can generate hundreds of fake accounts. The scammers usually connect with single or widowed women and begin a faux online romance. The “romance” can last for weeks, months and even years. Once a mark is hooked, the scammer moves the conversation to services such as WhatsApp and Google Accounts just in case the fake Facebook account is taken down. The military and FBI say many of the scammers come from Africa. The New York Times tracked down six scammers in Nigeria. Often these sweetheart scammers, who ironically have Facebook groups, even swap scripts they use on victims. The scripts provide names of battalions and ideas for small talk.    

How Facebook and the Pentagon are fighting the scam

Many victims complain to the military, but there’s not much it can do because the scammers and victims are all civilians. The Department of Defense tries to educate servicemembers about protecting their online identities, and employees scan for fake accounts every week and report them to Facebook. Facebook said it gets rid of fake accounts through a combination of user reports, human reviewers, machine-learning software and facial recognition technology. But Facebook being Facebook, it has been slow to respond, if it responds at all, to the Pentagon’s request. The New York Times reports that it recently found more than 120 fake accounts on Facebook and Instagram that were using the photos of three of the military’s highest-ranking generals. After giving the Pentagon a list of the generals’ imposter accounts to pass on to Facebook, 25 accounts were still active four months later.    

Ways to avoid sweetheart scams

As the Pentagon works to educate servicemembers about identity theft, the U.S. Army also offers these tips to avoid becoming a sweetheart scam victim. Here’s what to watch out for:

Requests for money for transportation costs, communication fees, marriage processing or medical fees.Requests that you send money or ship property to a third-party. Oftentimes, the company exists but is not part of the scam.Claims of lack of support or services provided to troops overseas.Communicates only via social media or email.Doesn’t use an email address ending with “.mil.” All military members have a “.mil” email address, so there is a high probability that a person is not in the military if they cannot provide one.Emails and texts have common spelling, grammatical or language errors.

Above all, the U.S. Army warns would-be victims to never send money. The internet, particularly social media, is a blessing and a curse. We have access to more communication tools than ever before, but people are also growing more isolated. A stranger reaching out to chat with you can ease the loneliness. But it’s important that you always keep your guard up to avoid heartbreak and an empty bank account.