MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now to matters of personal finance as we get close to Valentine's Day, which is Friday. And don't say I didn't remind you. Romance is in the air, and you might be looking for ways to touch your beloved's heart. But some scammers are thinking about ways to touch your wallet.
This according to consumer columnist Sheryl Harris, who tells us that many hard-working Americans who think that they are participating in online relationships are actually being targeted for scams. And she's going to tell us more about that. Sheryl Harris writes for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She's our money coach today, and she's with us now. Welcome back, Sheryl. Thanks for joining us.
SHERYL HARRIS: Oh, thanks, Michel. It's great to be here. And when you talk about scams, you're not talking about the fact that the same roses that cost X dollars last week are going to cost twice that on Friday. That's not what you're talking about. Something else entirely.
HARRIS: No, I'm talking about losing thousands of dollars, loaning money to someone that you think is an online love interest but who actually turns out to be a scammer.
MARTIN: Yeah. You know, I think a lot of people might remember the Manti Te'o story. Remember, the college football star...
MARTIN: ...Who was apparently tricked into having an online romance with a young man who pretended to be a woman. Now there doesn't seem to have been any financial motive there, but a lot of people look at that and say how is that possible? How could a smart person be tricked into something like that? So tell us some of the stories that you've heard.
HARRIS: Well, here. There's one recent victim I heard from. She was on an online chat site, met a guy who claimed to be an army sergeant who commanded troops in Iraq. So he's remote, far away. They can never meet, right? And he says, basically, look, I'm a shy guy. I love movies, music, walks on the beach. Well, how fabulous is that? So they strike up this email correspondence. They exchange photos. She gets a photo of, you know, a good-looking soldier. And it's actually just a photograph, I should say, that's stolen from an online site, any site. Doesn't matter. These photos that the exchange are never them. So for weeks, they're exchanging these emails, and, you know, he's saying how fabulous she is, you know, and playing to all of her interests. And then he says I really want to come and see you. Could you send me some money? And I need a loan.
So he hooks her up with another person, who is a, quote-unquote, army officer whose job - he tells this victim - is to process loans and make sure that civilians who loan money to military members are repaid. So she's now dealing with this person. And she sends 500 bucks. And then there's a little problem, and so she needs to send a little more. She sends more money. And eventually, she's out $2,500 before she is tapped out. She says I'm tapped out. And then they send her - and we've talked about these before - a fake check. They say here, have this check. Her bank spotted the check. And that's when she realized something was up. She didn't actually cash the check. The bank said this is a counterfeit check. And so she kind of thought the Army officer had scammed her, not her boyfriend. She still believes in the boyfriend. And then they invent - they email her and say, oh, sorry. Your boyfriend died in a roadside blast. So we're going to help you get your money back. And they try to re-scam her on that end, so.
MARTIN: Oh, so there's all kinds of just every button's being pushed here. Well...
HARRIS: They can morph many ways, yeah.
MARTIN: So you wrote about some of the red flags. And so tell me what were some of the red flags that you would hope that people would spot?
HARRIS: OK. Always...
MARTIN: Number one's overtures from a broad, right?
HARRIS: Always. There's always someone working overseas. And usually, it's a field that kind of commands respect - you know, soldiers, nonprofit workers, professors. So they try to have this implied credibility. The emails, if you look at them realistically, they are always a hodgepodge. There are these beautifully written paragraphs, which are stolen from love letters that are posted online. They're beautiful.
And then they're interspersed with these weird paragraphs that have really bad grammar and spelling and subject and verb mismatches. And even though the scammer claims to be an American, there are always usually, like, British idioms 'cause these are foreigners. So they're calling the trans the tube, you know. There just are little things. So you have to realistically look at those letters. And the biggest one is always a request for a loan. You know, it can be because of an accident, you know, because someone wants to come back and see this person, for a plane ticket. Any request for money should be a giant red flag.
MARTIN: But you were saying also that sometimes that people will request that the other party, that the target, get on the WebCam. But somehow, the other party - and you'd think, well, that would be a way to assess whether this person was for real or not. But you're saying that very often the person will request that you get on the WebCam, but somehow or another, theirs is never working or something like that.
HARRIS: Right. Theirs isn't working, or else it's so dark in the room, you can't really make out the person. There just are a lot of things that - I mean, all these are meant to do this implied credibility that they're a real person. So, yeah. And it's not always money that people want either. You know, sometimes, they'll ask them to deliver letters for them in the U.S. You know, gosh, I can't get home. Could I send you these letters? But what you're sending out are fake checks to other victims that they are scanning. Or they'll ask you to create, like, a Facebook page for them 'cause they can't get on Facebook because they're overseas. So they try to get you to do their dirty work.
MARTIN: You know, they seem very obvious in hindsight. But can you offer some clues about why it is that people in the moment don't seem to pick up on these things?
HARRIS: Anecdotally, most of the victims that I talked to - I mean - and, I mean, other people have been approached - but people who wind up giving money, they're really emotionally vulnerable. A lot of times they're people who - you know, they're just getting back in the dating scene after a divorce. A lot of times they're widows and widowers. I mean, they have lost someone that they love. And they're just trying to, you know, go in with good faith.
I mean, they want to find someone. And this person who reaches out to them seems so real. And these scams, it's not just like they meet you. They send you an email and ask you for $500. They play you for weeks and weeks and send you songs and poems and everything else. And then they hit you for this. So these things get strung out. And you really get caught - I think the victims get caught in the romance and the dream of this perfect person so that they can't see the signs 'cause the minute they realize it's scammed, usually, I mean - when they wake up to the scam, all the indicators they can see. They say...
MARTIN: I should've known.
HARRIS: ...You know, this went wrong, this went wrong. I should've known. But they're so caught up in it.
MARTIN: Well, hopefully, this is somebody's wake-up call this week, sad to say.
HARRIS: I hope so.
MARTIN: All right. Sheryl Harris is a consumer columnist for the Plain Dealer, with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. You know what? And after all that, happy Valentine's Day to you, Sheryl.
HARRIS: You too, Michel.
MARTIN: I'm going to...
HARRIS: Stay safe.
MARTIN: That's right. Let's stick with the homemade Valentine. That'll do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.