Valentine's Day isn't romantic for everyone in a relationship. Especially when that relationship is a fraud.
Phone operators for MoneyGram, a money transfer company, will make more than 30 calls today to victims of romance scams. They'll refund each victim an average of nearly $3,000 that otherwise would have gone to total strangers, usually overseas, for made-up emergency surgeries, supposedly sick children or non-existent customs fees.
Just weeks earlier, these strangers sparked online relationships with their victims, quickly expressing their love, and soon after, the need for money.
Instances of romance scams are the most prevalent at the beginning of a new year. Scams that occurred between January and March of 2012 accounted for nearly a third of the more than 11,000 romance scams MoneyGram detected last year.
"Scammers can prey on victims' loneliness following the holiday season, which grows leading up to and just after Valentine's Day," says Kim Garner, senior vice president of global security and investigations for MoneyGram.
Most scammers are foreigners posing as U.S. citizens abroad, making up stories that range from working for the military overseas to slightly more obscure professions. The current one of choice is a "gemologist," Garner says. The scammer will tell a victim that he or she ran out of spending money because it's all "tied up in stones."
Scammers may also mention that their child needs surgery, that an error is preventing them from receiving paychecks, or that their U.S. bank cut off access to their funds.
Despite how unlikely some excuses for needing money may seem, thousands of people each year are sending the funds, or at least trying.
MoneyGram, which has more than 300,000 locations across the world, uses a fraud-detection system that flags transactions as potential scams based on certain criteria. Sending a large amount of money to someone without the same last name or sending money overseas for the first time are both scenarios that prompt MoneyGram to make phone calls to customers.
"We'll say, 'How well do you know this person? Why are you suddenly sending this amount of money? How did you meet this person?' " Garner says. "People get really upset. You can tell by their reaction to the questions how legitimate the transaction is."
Scammers lurk on online dating sites or grief forums, looking for the lonely, grieving, and vulnerable, Garner says, and will even sometimes search obituaries for the names of surviving family members they could target.
MoneyGram has the right to refuse to send funds, but some victims still don't believe their relationship was a scam, Garner says.
Romance scam victims are often very inexperienced with relationships, and, "They have less experience to pick up on cues that would send others running," says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist.
Yarrow says phrases such as "crazy in love" and "head over heels" are common expressions, because "they describe a genuine psychological phenomenon in which the overwhelming physical and emotional sensations of new romance overshadow clear thinking."
For the inexperienced, these feelings can mean giving away not only their heart, but also their money.
"Be skeptical," says Ed Goodman, chief privacy officer for Identity Theft 911. "Most people who accurately portray themselves will portray flaws. If the person seems too good to be true, they probably are."
By Hadley Malcolm