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Beware Valentine's Day scams

Valentine's Day can make even the least romantic single start crooning Hunter Hayes' "Everybody's Got Somebody But Me," a fact that's only too well known by crooks hoping to perpetrate romance scams, according to the Better Business Bureau.

These schemes usually have one of three purposes. The crook wants to: 1) get you to send them money, often purportedly to visit you in person; 2) trick you into divulging private information that could allow the crook to hijack your identity; or 3) turn you into a "money mule," inadvertently participating in a money-laundering operation that can drain your bank account and get you in trouble with the law.

If you're tempted to go on a dating site this holiday - or anytime, really - it behooves you to know the telltale signs of these romance scams.

Love at first byte. You are delightful and charming, but how often has someone fallen desperately in love with you within weeks of your first online conversation and before you've even met in person? When your online connection is too connected, too fast, consider it a red flag. You've either got somebody who is so desperate that his or her judgment is poor, or you've got a scammer who hopes that you are.

But what if it's really love? See what happens when you try to slow things down. Someone who loves you will respect your wishes. A con artist will want to reel you in quickly, so if you refuse to go at love's version of light speed, the crook will cut the line.

Let's make this private. You meet in an open forum, such as a dating service chat room, but are quickly asked to move your conversation someplace more private, like email or an outside messaging service. This prevents the fraudster from getting caught by the site, where he or she will want to troll for more victims later. Stay in public places or the dating site's chat rooms until you feel like you know your love interest well.

Temporarily out of town. Con artists can come up with a lot of reasons why they can't meet you in person. The most common in this age is because they say they're in the military, stationed overseas. However, some might purport to be in a foreign land visiting sick relatives. If the object of your affection claims to be in the military, get the details. This scam is so common that the military provides a website to look up whether someone is actually serving. It's available 24 hours a day and is most effective when you know the service member's Social Security number. However, it can be used with just a name and other personal particular details, such as branch of service and location.

It's all about you. You may find it charming that your online love interest wants to know everything about you, but that could just be a con artist looking for solid background on their victim, said Tom Shaw, vice president of financial crimes at USAA. Ask questions about them and don't let them brush off the questions with continued questions about you. You should know as much about their friends, relatives and background as he or she knows about you. Be particularly cautious when the love interest tells you more about his or her economic woes than they do about their family/friends/living situation - and other typical points of connection in an early relationship. If you're not certain about a relationship - particularly one that appears to be moving fast - stop long enough to talk about it with trusted friends and relatives. Get at least one other perspective, ideally more.

Suspicious links. If the con artist is trying to steal your personal information, he or she may send you links to sites that contain a computer virus. These programs can hijack your computer and allow the con artist to track your online moves, including where you bank and your passwords. If you have updated security software, it should wave you away from a suspicious site before it's able to download a virus onto your computer. If you don't have updated security software, what are you doing on the web? It's the technological equivalent of not looking both ways before crossing the street. Any adult should know better.

Needs cash. This one should be obvious, but by the time the con artist asks you for cash (or cashier's check or money order, all of which are untraceable) he or she has probably won your heart and trust. When your newfound love asks you to send them money, run. This isn't your soul-mate -- it's a crook and this is a hold-up.

Help with banking. Crooks who wants you to be their money mule will send you a check that needs to be deposited in your bank account. There are banks in every country, many of them international. So for legitimate transactions, your new friend doesn't need you. But if he's trying to launder ill-gotten gains or catch you in a fake check scam, it's better for the crook to use your account. That way, you're the one who has to answer to law enforcement and to your bank when the illicit cash is suddenly withdrawn and you're left broken-hearted and holding the bag.

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