About the Author: Michelle Bernier-Toth serves as the Director of American Citizens Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Since one of the primary missions of the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State is to protect the lives and interests of American citizens overseas, we thought we should take a moment this April Fools' Day to reach out and educate U.S. citizens about some of the international scams we encounter most often in our line of work that manage to fool hundreds people out of thousands of dollars every year.
U.S. citizens lose upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars annually in international financial scams. One third of our callers report losses of over $10,000, and in some cases up to $100,000. One case even reached $250,000 in losses!
Victims report to us that they meet scammers in chat rooms and on all the well known dating websites. Scammers are also found on special-interest sites for Christian singles, widows, or singles with disabilities. Unfortunately, not even the most reputable sites are guaranteed to be scam-proof.
Anyone can become a victim of a scam, regardless of age, sex, race, education or economic status. From our experience, those most at risk are the elderly, the disabled, and those who are overly empathetic.
Romance scams make up close to 80 percent of the incidents we see, making them the most common one we encounter in our work. Many scams targeting women tend to be from West Africa and South America, while many scams aimed at men are generated out of Asia. Many of the scams appear to occur on Friday evenings or weekends, when government offices are closed. Our consular officers encounter this type of scam so much that the U.S. Embassy in London created this video to spread awareness and help others avoid romance scams.
Other scams we see include alleged business ventures or bank holdings. Although a number of these scams are sourced in several West African countries, it seems that much of the money is being sent to Nigeria. Each week, the U.S. consulate in Lagos, Nigeria receives about 200 e-mails and 50 phone calls related to scams that average losses of about $4,500 per victim. Conservative estimates show that about $50 million a year flows into the city of Lagos, Nigeria. However, scams can come from anywhere in the world. The FBI regularly publishes new e-scams and warnings here.
Here in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, we routinely provide consular services to U.S. citizens in distress abroad. Citizens may reach out to consular officers at all of our embassies and consulates overseas. Through passport record checks, we can confirm the status of someone claiming to be a U.S. citizen. We also provide emergency financial assistance for U.S. citizens abroad.
If you, or someone you know, needs emergency assistance abroad, you may call our overseas citizens services line at 1-888-407-4747, or if you are overseas you may call 202-501-4444.
In addition, you should report scams to:
* Local police
* If mail was involved, file a complaint with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
* Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection. If you want to report by phone, call 1-877-FTC-HELP or 1-877-382-4357.
You may also tell a victim's story, file a complaint and notify authorities at: www.lookstoogoodtobetrue.com.
Consular officers also encounter non-U.S. citizens who fall victim to scams when they trust unofficial websites, e-mails or print advertisements with fraudulent information about the visa application process. If a family member, friend or you are applying for a visa to enter the United States, please be mindful of imposter or fraudulent websites. For more information, please read our Fraud Warning.
U.S. citizens have also reported to us about fraudulent websites directing them to pay for their U.S. passport fees online. Please remember to follow the passport application instructions on our official State Department website, www.travel.state.gov. U.S. citizens may also watch this Federal Trade Commission video to learn how to file a complaint and help others avoid being fooled as well.
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