How to protect your wallet and heart this Valentine's Day

Consumer alert for those looking for love

By Colette DuChanois - Web producer
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - There's a consumer alert for anyone looking for love this Valentine's Day.

The Better Business Bureau warned of romance scams and offered tips for safe online shopping ahead of the holiday of love.

Online dating apps and websites have made it easier to meet new people and find dates, but they've also made it easier to fall for romance scams if you're not careful.

That's why the BBB warned of "catfishing," a form of deception in which someone hides behind a fake identity and tricks you into falling for someone who doesn't even exist.

Catfishing can be the first step in a phishing scheme to steal your personal information or trick you out of money, the BBB said.

Here's how it works: The BBB said that romance scams start with a con artist creating a fake online dating profile, sometimes by stealing photos from real people, and building a relationship with you over the internet. They often create an excuse for why they can't meet you in person.

Just when the relationship starts to get serious, the BBB said, the scammer comes up with some story as to why they need you to send money.

But here are some tips from the BBB for spotting a romance scam:

Too hot to be true: Scammers offer up good-looking photos and tales of financial success. If the suitor seems too perfect, your alarm bells should ring.

In a hurry to get off the site: Catfishers will try very quickly to get you to move to communicating through email, Messenger or phone.

Moving fast: A catfisher will quickly begin speaking of a future together and tell you they love you. They often say they’ve never felt this way before.

Talk about trust: Catfishers will start manipulating you with talk about trust and how important it is. This will often be a first step to asking you for money.

Don’t want to meet: Be wary of someone who always has to postpone meeting.

Suspect language: If the person you are communicating with claims to be from your hometown but has poor spelling or grammar, uses overly flowery language or uses phrases that don’t make sense, that’s a red flag.

Hard luck stories: Before moving on to asking you for money, the scammer may hint at financial troubles, such as heat being cut off, a stolen car or a sick relative. Or they may share a sad story from their past.

To protect yourself from romance scams, the BBB advised that you never send money or personal information, including credit card, bank or government ID numbers. You should also ask specific questions about details in someone's online profile.

Also, do your research. The BBB said many scammers steal photos from the web to use in their profiles. You can do a reverse image search using a website such as tineye.com or images.google.com to see if the photos on a profile have been stolen from somewhere else. You can also search online for a profile name, email address or phone number to see what adds up and what doesn’t.

How to shop smart online for Valentine's Day

Are you looking online for the perfect gift for your sweetheart? You're not alone.

According to the National Retail Federation, total spending for Valentine's Day is expected to reach $19.6 billion in 2018, up from $18.2 billion last year. The National Retail Federation also reports 29 percent of consumers plan to shop online.

But the BBB warned that many customers often find what they ordered is not what they get in the mail, and some websites even take your money without sending anything. 

That's why the organization provided several tips for safe online shopping:

Know the advertiser: Some of the best deals are only available online, but be careful. It’s easy for a fake site to mimic a famous retailer’s website, so make sure you are shopping on a legitimate site. Check out retailers at bbb.org before you shop.

Check a site’s security settings: If the site is secure, its URL, or web address, should start with “https://” and include a lock icon on the purchase or shopping cart page.  

Be a savvy shopper: When shopping online, be sure to take your time, and read the fine print before submitting your order. Look for the return policy; although many online orders can be returned for a full refund, others have restocking fees. Some items cannot be returned; know before you buy.

Protect personal information: Read a site’s privacy policy and understand what personal information is being requested and how it will be used. If a site doesn’t have a privacy policy, that’s a big red flag that it may be a scam.

Think before you click: Be especially cautious about email solicitations and online ads on social media sites. Many sketchy retailers advertise great deals or trendy clothes that don’t measure up to the promotional hype.

Beware of too-good-to-be-true deals: Offers on websites and in unsolicited emails may offer free or very low prices on hard-to-find items. There may be hidden costs or your purchase may sign you up for a monthly charge. Look for and read the fine print.

Beware of phishing: A phishing email can look like a message from a well-known brand, but clicking on unfamiliar links can place you at risk for malware and/or identity theft. One popular scam claims to be from a package-delivery company with links to “tracking information” on an order you don’t remember making. Don’t click.

Shop with a credit card: In case of a fraudulent transaction, a credit card provides additional protections; it’s easier to dispute charges that you didn’t approve. Debit cards, prepaid cards or gift cards don’t have the same protections as a credit card.

Keep documentation of your order: Save a copy of the confirmation page or email confirmation until you receive the item and are satisfied. Be sure to know and understand the return policy and keep this documented with your purchase records.

Keep a clean machine: Install a firewall, and anti-virus and anti-spyware software. Check for and install the latest updates and run virus scans regularly on your computer, tablet and smartphone.

To report a scam, go to the BBB Scam Tracker.  To learn more about how to protect yourself, visit the BBB's website for "10 Steps to Avoid Scams."

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