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Thursday, February 14, 2008; Page D02

If you're looking online for a sweetheart, beware: You may find a new meaning for the expression "money can't buy love."

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The National Consumers League has issued a warning to people looking for love on the Internet to watch out for con artists whose only mission is to separate them from their cash.

"Scammers lurk in chat rooms and on online dating sites, attempting to earn someone's affections and trust so that they can persuade him or her to send money," said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League.

The league, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, is calling such scams the "Sweetheart Swindle." It's a simple scheme, really. The con artist spends time nurturing a relationship. The goal of this online courtship, Greenberg said, is to eventually get the victim to repeatedly send cash.

Greenberg said the group's Fraud Center began tracking this type of scam last summer. However, sweetheart swindles have become so pervasive that the organization says they have moved into its top 10 list of scams. Last year, lovesick victims lost more than $3,000 on average, according to complaints logged at the center's Web site ( http://www.fraud.org).

The scams vary, but the typical swindler will begin to weave a tale of how he (or she) has gotten into a financial jam, Greenberg said. Feeling sorry for an online lover, the victim eventually sends money.

In one case, a woman gave $35,000 to a man she met on Match.com, who claimed he was from her hometown of Kansas City, Mo. He said he worked as an engineer in Nigeria. For four months, the two had long online exchanges, like the ones you have at the beginning of a courtship. He even sent her flowers and professed his love for her.

Then the man began requesting money to pay for medical care for his 11-year-old son, who he claimed had a congenital heart condition.

It was all a con. Eventually the woman took out a second mortgage on her home to pay off the credit cards she had used to get advances to send him money.

"I'm not a stupid woman," she told me in an interview. "I have a master's degree. I hold down a good job."

But, she said, she felt sorry for the kid. "That was where my heartstrings were."

If you're inclined to be harsh on these victims, don't be so smug to think this couldn't happen to you, Greenberg said.

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