(Cincinnati, OH) - An FBI-led task force that investigates online criminal networks is warning individuals of emerging scams targeting area residents.
The Southern Ohio Digital Organized Crime Group says criminal actors are engaging in romance scams, inheritance scams, and frauds purporting to help “those in need.” The fraudsters are asking victims to send money via wire transfers, prepaid debit and gift cards, and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), 284 residents in central and southern Ohio lost over $3.5 million in 2020 as a result of romance fraud and confidence scams.
“The FBI has seen an increase in the number of frauds and the amount of money lost over recent months,” says FBI Cincinnati Special Agent in Charge Chris Hoffman. “We want to help prevent these types of scams while working to investigate and prosecute those who are committing faud and stealing the hard-earned savings of local residents.”
The most prevalent recent frauds are romance scams. These frauds often begin on legitimate dating, social media, or professional networking sites and the victim believes they are dating someone without actually meeting in person. The scammers carefully build relationships and emotional attachments before asking for money to assist with a fictitious financial need. A common theme in these scams is a reason why the perpetrator is unable to meet in person. Excuses like being overseas for work, in the military, or even quarantined for health reasons are some of the explanations utilized by the fraudsters.
Romance fraud and other scams are also consistently used to recruit money mules – people who may unwittingly be used to illegally transfer money obtained through criminal activity. Once a trust relationship is established, the scammers may ask the victim to open bank accounts, cash checks, purchase pre-paid debit cards, or use CVC kiosks (also called bitcoin ATMs or crypto ATMs, which are devices that allow users to exchange cash and virtual currency) to move money. Criminal networks use romance scam victims, acting as money mules, to victimize other individuals and businesses by laundering the proceeds of fraud.
Organized crime groups, especially those located in Africa, have capitalized on the pandemic and the emergence of cryptocurrency to quickly move funds acquired from the victims out of the United States.
The FBI recommends the public take these measures to prevent becoming a victim:
• Be cautious of online relationships with people you have not met in person.
• Never send money or personal information to anyone you have only communicated with online or through texts.
• Go slow and ask a lot of questions. Be very suspicious if the individual promises to meet in person or via video chat, but always comes up with excuses why they cannot meet.
Any individual who believes they may be a target of this type of fraud should stop talking to the person involved, not send money, maintain communications and receipts (chats, texts, emails, etc.), notify the bank and the service used to make any financial transactions, contact law enforcement, and report the incident to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.
Additional information and resources on romance scams are available at the FBI’s website, www.fbi.gov/romancescams, and the FTC’s website, www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/what-you-need-know-about-romance-scams.
Participating members in the Southern Ohio Digital Organized Crime Group (SODOCG) include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Homeland Security Investigations (HIS), Middletown Police Department, Mason Police Department, Cincinnati Police Department, Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), Ohio National Guard Counterdrug program, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).