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Finding “the one” can be a real challenge. For some people, the best way to get out there is over the web, but could you be putting yourself at risk?

Online dating sites report a surge in activity in February, as many singles use technology to find a match. But behind many dating profiles lurk scammers who are ready to dupe users into believing they have found love. Romance fraudsters want to steal their money or make them unwitting accomplices in fraud.

In the past 36 months, Better Business Bureau received 636 Scam Tracker reports related to romance fraud, some of these coming from the Magic Valley. In addition, BBB received nearly 7,500 complaints against online dating services, in which some of the complainants alluded to fraudulent activities. BBB estimates there may be a million romance fraud victims in the U.S. alone.

The Better Business Bureau has released a study describing the inner workings of how fraudsters target those looking for romance. It may take months for scammers to build trusting relationships with victims before asking for money, usually for an “emergency” or transportation.

These con artists aren’t just in it to steal from their victim but turn that victim into a money mule to commit crimes. In many cases, money first passes to “money mules,” who then transfer it to the fraudsters, often outside of the country. Because law enforcement traditionally follows the money to locate fraudsters, this tactic makes it more difficult to find those responsible for fraud. Money mules are often unsuspecting romance fraud victims themselves who may end up in serious legal trouble for their activities.

In most cases, there is no desire to take criminal action against unwitting participants who had no financial gain — and who stop transferring money for crooks as soon as they realize the role they have been playing.

Terrill Caplan of Fraud Aid, a fraud victim advocacy organization, has spent more than a decade working with law enforcement, often helping romance fraud victims who have been used as money mules. He estimates that in 2018, 20 to 30 percent of romance victims were used as money mules. These victims’ number in the thousands. He says most victims do not realize they are aiding in illegal activity.

Money mules have become so widespread that in November 2018 the U.S. Department of Justice announced a major initiative to concentrate on this problem. Legal actions, including prosecutions, warning letters and search warrants, were taken against more than 400 money mules across the country.

These frauds include not only romance frauds, but also business email compromise fraud, fake check frauds, grandparent frauds and stolen identity refund frauds that involve filing bogus tax returns. It is believed that the same gangs that commit these frauds also are involved in illegal drug trade and other serious crimes.

For more details on how these con artists groom their money mules, go bbb.org/us/news.

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