Valentine's Day is a time to celebrate romance and new relationships, whether they exist in person, via love letters or entirely online. Unfortunately, it's also become a time to guard against fraudsters preying on the lonely and elderly.
Romance scams are hot this time of year, and the Sunshine State is a familiar hunting ground because of its large senior population. Scammers troll dating Websites, funeral notices and social networks to find victims.
"We know they look at obituaries to find targets, as well as widow or widower message boards," said Kim Garner, senior vice president of global security and investigations for MoneyGram International. "They clearly see the demographics of Florida as a potential victim pool."
Case in point: The sex tape scam.
MoneyGram, a popular money transfer service, recently began warning Florida consumers about a romance-based scam involving sex tapes and blackmail. The bad guy befriends a victim online, builds trust and eventually asks for a sex tape to be sent. Victims are threatened later with having it released unless they wire money quickly.
Using sophisticated transaction tracking techniques, MoneyGram prevented and refunded about $13.7 million worth of transactions involving romance scams last year. "Hundreds of those victims were in Florida," Garner said, and these individuals were saved upward of tens of thousands of dollars each.
About 60 percent of romance scam victims are women, the company said, and the average age is 45 to 65. The fraudsters pose as engineers, contractors or other employees who work abroad.
But police caution that fraud is a year-round pursuit for criminals who take advantage of seniors.
For example, police point to a Broward County woman in her 80's who about two weeks ago was duped out of more than $2,000 by someone posing as her daughter and claiming to be in a Canadian jail in need of bail money.
"We see these kinds of cases often, at least a couple times a month," said Sgt. Andrew Smith, a criminal investigations supervisor for the Broward County Sheriff's Department.
So it's not just a Valentines thing. And neither are frauds totally focused on the elderly.
A 21-year-old Pembroke Pines man was sentenced to 20 years in prison last week for persuading four girls yougner than 16 to send nude photos and threatening to release them unless they provided sex or more photos.
The watchword: Be careful this Valentines Day — and beyond.
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