They prey on the heartstrings. Thieves stealing from unsuspecting people, looking for romance. It's one of the top internet crimes in the U.S. and in the state of Wisconsin. Victims have lost millions.
The FBI tells us internet crime is big business in Wisconsin, and victims have handed over a lot of money to these thieves. In 2016 the tab was more than $14.7 million.
There are no shortage of apps or online dating sites to help people find love but mixed in with all those potential singles are predators, tricking you into falling for someone who doesn't exist.
The latest numbers from the FBI show victims across the U.S. handed over almost $220 million to romance thieves in 2016. Cara Ahrenhoerster started online dating in college, "I definitely was more worried about the things that were going to go wrong when I first started."
She's never had a horrible experience, but she has noticed some red flags, like fake photos.
"I definitely saw it sometimes, but it's usually like glaringly obvious," she said.
In 2016, there were close to 180 reported victims of romance fraud in Wisconsin. The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, puts the loss at a little more than $2.3 million. Not a complete picture of the crime, since only 15% of financial fraud victims actually come forward.
FBI Special Agent Brian Due says internet crimes are becoming more and more sophisticated, 'they're very, very good at what they do." Thieves are actually trained on how to get the most money out of victims.
"They have well rehearsed scripts that they use, that have been used successfully over and over again," Due said.
They use fake photos and profiles. Once they've met a victim they get them to communicate only by text or email. If a dating website identifies a bogus profile and shuts it down, the perpetrator can still keep in touch.
"They will cultivate, develop these relationships sometimes over months," Due said.
Then they ask for money, usually for an emergency or to buy a plane ticket to meet. And they keep asking for more.
"Once the money goes to the perpetrator's intended account it often goes straight out of the country," Due said. He also told us it's almost impossible to get that money back.
Olayinka Sunmola followed this fraud blueprint to a tee. He's a Nigerian citizen, now a federal prisoner in the U.S. he defrauded hundreds of women in America, including dozens who live in Illinois and Missouri.
Sunmola pretended to be a member of the U.S. military stationed overseas. He even used pictures of dead servicemen. In 2017, Sunmola was sentenced to 27 years and ordered to repay $1.7 million to his victims.
Cara said she understands how people end up being victims. She was never targeted but still decided to take a break from the dating apps. If she ever goes back to online dating Cara plans to be extra vigilant.
800 complaints about internet crime come into ic3.gov a day. According to the FBI, the highest number of victims in Wisconsin are in the 50-59 age range.
There are some easy things people can do so they don't become a victim if they're dating online. The FBI recommends people ask specific questions about a person's dating profile. If it's fake they might stumble over the details or not remember something.
Also, do a reverse image look up to see if someone is using photos from the web, and Google their name. Sometimes these people use a fake one more than once.
If you are a victim, report the crime. If it's early enough law enforcement may be able to get to the money, and it might help others from getting scammed.