‘ROMANCE SCAMS’: FBI Houston warns people of various Valentine’s Day swindles

HOUSTON – The FBI Houston division is warning people to be wary of various versions of the “romance scam” as Valentine’s Day approaches.

Officials said that scammers target those looking for love online or people they court, building the illusion of a deep connection to then take advantage of the person, usually for financial gain, benefitting the scammer and the scammer’s network.

FBI Houston said the scammers are master manipulators who use careful tactics to convince the victim that they should help them out of “love.” In fact, FBI Houston spokesperson Christina Garza said Americans reported nearly $1,000,000,000 in losses due to the Romance Scam in 2021.

“That’s just the amount that we know about. Many of the scams go unreported,” Garza said.

One La Porte woman, Yvonne Costales, said she dealt with this when she turned to an online app after deciding that it might be time to start dating again.

“I hadn’t dated for a long time,” Costales said. “I know people who have actually met their life partner there, so I thought I’d try.”

Not long after she received a message from a man who claimed to be “Robert.”

“This person named ‘Robert’ contacted me,” Costales said. “First thing he said was, ‘Oh, you’re so beautiful,’ and I said, ‘Thank you.’”

Soon, he started to contact her regularly with what seemed to be kind and genuine messages.

“He started contacting me every day,” Costales said.

The man had started to appear to open up with her. She said he built fake stories to gain her sympathy.

“He said his parents were dead. He was estranged from his brother,” Costales added.

He told her he was from Italy and did construction jobs all over the world.

“He was sending me videos... songs you would play at your wedding... I just felt Like I was swept off my feet,” Costales said.

She said she saw some signs, but as a 68-year-old and part of the Baby Boomer generation, she said she’d been raised to believe the best in people and give people the benefit of the doubt.

“I had red flags, but I kept rationalizing it, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m just being too negative,’” Costales said.

Until he began to push her to do things she knew she was not comfortable with. Eventually, they started getting serious.

“We talked about moving in together, and he said, ‘I’ll send you some money to buy a house,’” she said.

Never having met him in person, she declined. She knew it was odd that every time they tried to meet up, something always fell through.

He then said he had a bad accident and that he needed her to accept the money so that she could buy him supplies.

FBI Houston said money laundering is a twist in the Romance Scam they are seeing more often. Garza said many scammers have recently been asking people to launder money without the victims’ knowing it.

“So, they’re asking you to do illegal things for them with that money,” Garza said.

As for Costales, she said she became wary of other signs that there was something wrong. She also said that he would get caught up in lies about his whereabouts and then deny things he said. All of this was suspicious to Costales.

After utilizing online resources like SocialCatfish.com to trace the picture to its original source, she said she realized that the person she thought was “Robert” was actually someone else who had stolen the images from a real person’s public Instagram account.

“They’re experts at manipulating you,” Costales said.

Now, she hopes her story warns others and empowers people to learn about it.

FBI Houston has a webpage and resources dedicated to helping people learn how to identify a Romance Scam, what to do and how to report it.

Garza said others should report the scam right away and refrain from talking to the potential scammer.

“Never send cryptocurrency, money, or gift cards to anyone you don’t know and have not met in person,” Garza said.

Here are tips from the FBI Houston Division:

To stay safe online, be careful what you post because scammers can use that information against you. Always use reputable websites, but assume that con artists are trolling even the most reputable dating and social media sites.

If you develop a romantic relationship with someone you meet online, consider the following:

-Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere.

-Go slow and ask lots of questions.

-Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or Facebook to go “offline.”

-Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.

-Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.

-Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally.

-If you suspect an online relationship is a scam, stop all contact immediately. If you are the victim of a romance scam, file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov .