With Valentine’s Day comes a surge of activity on dating websites with singles looking to the internet for a love connection. Unfortunately, these sites are rife with fraudsters who use affection to manipulate their victims out of their money.

A new Better Business Bureau report finds online romance scams often escalate as scammers turn their victims into unwitting accomplices to fraud, known as “money mules.”

In February 2018, BBB issued an in-depth investigative study on romance scams, describing how fraudsters target people who are looking for romance. BBB’s follow-up study — “Fall in Love – Go to Jail: A BBB Report on How Romance Fraud Victims Become Money Mules” — describes how fraudsters then exploit that relationship further. It digs into the scope of the problem, who is behind it and the need for law enforcement and consumer education to address the issue.

As detailed in the original study, romance scammers typically contact their victims through dating websites, apps or social media. Using false identities, scammers may spend months grooming their victims, building what the victim believes to be a loving relationship, before asking for money to handle an emergency or travel expenses.

The financial damage inflicted by these scams, which often is accompanied by far greater emotional harm, often is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the new BBB report, 20 to 30 percent of romance scam victims were used as “money mules” in 2018 alone, with these victims numbering in the thousands.

Money mules act as financial middlemen in a variety of scams, laundering money from other victims by receiving money or goods purchased with stolen credit cards and sending them on to the fraudsters, often out of the country.

This often happens when the romance scam victim has no money or already has given all of their money to the scammer. The victim might be a willing accomplice or may have a variety of other motives – love, fear, financial compensation for their own losses – but the outcome is the same.

By providing this type of aid to the fraudster, the victim aids and abets a variety of other frauds, muddying the scope of a fraud and the identity of the real perpetrator.

The scams and crimes in which money mules may become embroiled include business email compromises, fake check scams, credit card reshipping, grandparent scams and even illegal drug transportation. These frauds have in common that the money mules frequently are romance scam victims.

As law enforcement cracks down on romance and other frauds, prosecuting more of these scams’ perpetrators in recent years, money mules at times have been prosecuted as well, facing jail time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and restitution payments.

In most cases, however, there is no desire to take criminal action against unwitting participants who had no financial gain and who stop transferring money for crooks as soon as they realize the role they have been playing.

“The money mule phenomenon adds insult to injury for romance scam victims,” said Reanna Smith-Hamblin, president/CEO of BBB serving Louisville, Southern Indiana and Western Kentucky. “After losing money and dignity to fraudsters they believed were loving romantic partners, these victims find themselves tangled in a web of even more serious crimes, possibly facing consequences themselves. Law enforcement and educators should work together to expose and stop these scams, to help unwitting fraud victims avoid being re-victimized.”

The BBB report recommends:

• Romance fraud victims often need counseling to help them overcome the trauma of this fraud. More victim support groups such as those in Los Angeles and Ventura, California, would be helpful.

• More warnings to money mules may help alert romance fraud victims that they are engaged in assisting frauds and encourage them to stop.

• More prosecutions of romance fraudsters would help deter romance fraud.

• Change existing restrictions to let banks share information with law enforcement, regulators and other financial institutions about possible money mule accounts.

• Increase cooperation and sharing of information between law-enforcement agencies in different jurisdictions working on the same cases.

• More training and cooperation is needed internationally to recognize and combat romance fraud.

Go to www.bbb.org to start the process to file a complaint or submit a customer review.

Mindy Eaton, director of communications and marketing for the Better Business Bureau’s regional office, can be reached at meaton@bbb.louisville.org.