Spot a 'sweetheart scammer' before you get taken

Published On: Jan 09 2014 10:03:10 PM EST   Updated On: Jan 10 2014 07:45:00 AM EST

You know the old adage "love is blind."  Well, that's exactly what so-called "sweetheart scammers" on counting on. In one case, the victim was told the man she loved was in the middle of divorcing his current wife.

"She fell in love on the Internet," explained US Postal Inspector Ricky Vida. "It's what we call a Sweetheart Scam. She believed she was going to marry a U.S. Soldier stationed over in Nigeria."

The victim was asked by her "sweetheart" if she would pawn some jewelry she would receive in the mail and then wire the money to him in Africa.

"She showed us the text messages she was receiving from her love interest overseas-- her Sweetheart," said Vida.

Instead of love, this victim found herself caught in a scam.

"This individual is what we call a "money mule" -- a middleman," added Vida.

The jewelry sent to her was essentially stolen in an online auction scam. Here's how it works:  Someone trying to sell something online receives an email from an interested buyer.

"The email would be a spoof email it would appear like it is from Paypal. There would be a request for a tracking number then once I get the tracking number you'll get your money from Paypal," explained Vida.

So the seller goes to the post office and sends the merchandise to get the tracking number,  then realizes he's been duped.

"The seller wouldn't receive payment or anything and would be out the jewelry or other things they were selling online," said Vida.

Those "goods" are sent to a middle man,  like the victim in the sweetheart scam, who has no idea the merchandise is part of a rip-off scheme.

If you're selling something online, inspectors have a warning.

"The best thing you could do is closely read the email. If there are misspellings in there if the language doesn't seem right, be aware it could be a spoof email," said Vida.

If you have any doubts, postal inspectors say do not reply to the email.

"The most important thing you can do, just contact the business and ask them about it," added Vida.

Federal officials say the average financial loss from these romance schemes is between $15,000 and $20,000. That's nearly double what it was a decade ago. 

As for how to avoid being the "sweetheart" caught in the middle, authorities say never trust someone you've met online until you meet them face to face and confirm they are who they say they are.

The National Consumers League, on it's website Fraud.org, has red flags that the person you're communicating with may be a scammer.