CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Watch out for scammers and con artists who play on your emotions to try to win your trust and steal your money, Attorney General Roy Cooper warned consumers Tuesday.
"Con artists will use your search for romance or your desire to help a loved one to rip you off," Cooper said. "Don't let scammers manipulate your feelings to worm their way into your heart and your wallet."
Cooper urged consumers to educate themselves about frauds and ripoffs during National Consumer Protection Week. Consumers should be especially wary of two popular types of scams, sweetheart scams and grandparent scams, Cooper said.
Perpetrators of sweetheart and grandparent scams are often located overseas, and Cooper's office works with international authorities to investigate them. Fraud experts with the Consumer Protection Division have helped intercept thousands of dollars sent overseas by victims of these scams, and have even thwarted attempts by sweetheart scam victims to fly to other countries and hand-deliver cash to con artists.
Sweetheart scams first operated in person, with con artists pretending to fall in love with lonely people in order to gain their trust and then exploit them financially. The scam has now moved to dating and social media websites such as match.com, seniorpeoplemeet.com, christianmingle.com and Facebook.
The sweetheart scam usually starts with a message sent online, expressing interest in getting to know you. Once the con artist establishes a relationship, he or she will claim to have an emergency while traveling or working overseas and ask you to wire money to cover expenses until he or she is able to return to the U.S.
Sweetheart scammers often repeatedly request more and more money, and some victims lose hundreds or thousands of dollars. In many cases, victims don't realize they have been scammed until the wire company or their bank becomes suspicious.
The Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division heard from 36 victims of the sweetheart scam in 2013 who lost a total of $1.4 million. Already in 2014, six victims have lost a total of $203,141.
With the grandparent scam, scammers call senior citizens pretending to be their grandchildren and claim to be in danger or trouble and say they need money wired immediately. Just this past week, one North Carolina senior reported to Cooper's Consumer Protection Division that he lost $1,800 after wiring money to the Dominican Republic. He believed he was helping his grandchild who had been in a car accident and needed to pay for the damages to avoid DUI charges.
Grandparent scammers may call multiple times and request money to post bail, pay customs fees or have a car repaired.
The grandparent scam is another fraud that has taken on new life thanks to social media. Con artists will mine Facebook and Twitter to get personal information, including family members' names and details of recent trips, to make the con more believable.
In 2013, 34 consumers fell victim to the grandparent scam and lost a total of $140,145. So far in 2014, 14 victims have lost a total of $55,353.
Tips for consumers
· People aren't always who they claim to be online or over the telephone. If a caller claims to be a family member in trouble, hang up and call another family member to confirm the caller's story.
· Be cautious if you are asked to wire money, and never send money to someone you've only met online. Once the money is out of your hands, it is highly unlikely you will ever get it back.
· Never give out your personal information to someone you meet online, no matter what the circumstance or why they say they need it.
· Be skeptical if you're asked to keep the call or online contact a secret.
· If a senior family member insists on wiring money overseas, contact our office immediately. We have agreements in place with major wire service companies to block such transfers.
· Report suspected grandparent or sweetheart scams to our Consumer Protection Division at 1-877-5-NO-SCAM or file a consumer complaint online at www.ncdoj.gov http://www.ncdoj.gov/.
"If you or a loved one may be the victim of one of these heartless scammers, let us know," Cooper said. "We can work to minimize the losses and prevent victims from being scammed again."