It’s not just hearts that are stolen come Valentine’s Day.
Also at risk: Your money, identity and sensitive computer files and online accounts – thanks to the many opportunities to infect computers with malware this love-filled season.
True, most attention – and the biggest financial losses – occurs with “long-con” romance scams. That’s when crooks (often part of overseas organized crime rings) scroll dating websites and chat rooms, inventing fake identities tailored to their victims’ interests. After weeks or months of online wooing, they ask for money via a wire transfer for some emergency (or a plane ticket to meet you) or they send you counterfeit checks for you to cash and forward back.
Last year, the FBI says victims reported losses of at least $56 million - and most were women age 50 and older. This year, Christian dating websites have been a popular place for romance scammers to recruit victims, reports the AARP Fraud Fighter Call Center (Phone: 1-800-646-2283).
In addition to those heartbreaking swindles, an immediate gotcha – with malware-causing trouble that may remain undetected – can result with one mistaken click in other love-laced online scams. Here’s how to protect yourself:
Be extra careful with e-cards. Online greeting cards are an easy way for scammers to infect your computer with malware that gives them remote access to your files, online banking accounts and passwords.
Advice: Don’t click on imbedded links from incoming e-cards – especially those from an unnamed “friend” or “secret admirer,” names you don’t recognize or senders like “email@example.com.” Even if you do recognize the sender’s name, go to the card company’s website to “open” and read the card. In legit e-cards, a notification message includes a confirmation code that allows recipients to open card at those sites.
Can sale-related spam. Expect an in-box littered with offers for deals on chocolates, jewelry, roses and other Valentine’s-themed trinkets. But be skeptical unless the offer is from a company you’ve done business with – and already has your contact information. Links within such emails can also unleash malware or lead you to scammer-run copycat websites.
Advice: Besides carefully reading the address – for instance, looking for “www.tiffany.com” vs. “www.tiffanyco.mn” (suggesting a Mongolia-based website), try this: Without clicking, point your mouse to hover over the link to see its full address. Copy-and-paste (again, without clicking) that link into a Microsoft Word document. By right-clicking on the pasted link and selecting “Edit Hyperlink” from the menu that appears, a pop-up window should appear that shows the web address to which the link directs in the “Address” field.
Be search-word savvy. Knowing that gift-giving sweethearts often start their online shopping from a search engine such as Google or Yahoo, it’s prime time for scammers to create bogus websites to sell counterfeit goods – or nothing at all – while collecting customers’ credit card information that could be fraudulently used.
Advice: You’re safer shopping for a sweetheart’s gift from a reputable retailer’s website – typing its address yourself rather than relying on a click-through from a keyword search on a search engine. Some bogus websites found on search engines look like the real McCoy, but are merely well-designed copycats.
Don’t fall for a delivery dupe. Another “click here” way to unleash malware is with emails claiming to be from a courier service such as FedEx or UPS claiming your have a package that cannot be delivered, and details are found in the imbedded link.
Advice: Unless you previously provided your email – don’t assume the alleged sender did – assume such correspondence is scammer sent. When in doubt, contact the courier service by looking up its Customer Service phone number yourself.
Beware of Facebook fiends. Those poems, love letters, quizzes or other messages on social media websites purported to come from friends? They also can be scammer-sent ruses to also download malware or direct you to websites to sell you something. Also know that free Valentine’s Day’s apps may lead you to survey websites that try to collect personal information that could be used for identity theft.
Advice: Think twice before opening any Facebook message with generic greetings such as “Valentine’s Day” and “Special Greeting.” Even if you know the sender, realize that the message may not be from him or her. Some rogue apps are instantly spread to others after being opened or posted on a Facebook wall.
For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up-to-date on the latest scams in your area.
Photo: Christina Rutz/Flickr
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