The number one priority for the Department of State's Office of Overseas Citizens Services is the protection of U.S. citizens overseas, but sometimes protection also needs to be provided to U.S. citizens who are at home, being victimized from abroad.
Every day, U.S. citizens are targeted by scammers operating from countries abroad. If you don't think this can happen to you, think again. We receive calls from people of all races, ethnicities, economic means, and educational levels telling us about their "loved one" who is in dire financial need, only to find out that such a person does not exist. These callers have been duped. As a result, U.S. citizens are often convinced to part with their hard-earned savings. The amounts requested range from relatively small amounts to more than $150,000.
Most of the cases we deal with tend to be "romance scams" or "grandparent scams," but there are many creative scams. In romance scams, after an online courtship, the paramour often claims that he or she is a U.S. citizen in trouble overseas and that the U.S. embassy or consulate won't provide assistance. In fact, the person is a foreign citizen posing as a U.S. citizen. In grandparent scams, the perpetrator often calls a grandparent or other relative pretending to be their grandchild/niece/nephew, etc. The caller generally claims that he or she is in Mexico (or Canada, or Jamaica, etc.) with a friend, and they have medical or legal troubles (e.g., a car accident or an arrest) and need money fast. They usually ask the victim to wire $2,000 to $3,000 to them via Western Union as soon as possible. Please remember that helping U.S. citizens overseas is one of the State Department's top priorities. We never turn away a U.S. citizen in need.
Many people wonder how and why these scams continue to succeed. Why would anyone give money to someone they have only ever spoken to over the phone or through Internet chat sites and email? Simply put, this is the scammer's JOB. Yes, that's right, a scammer earns a living through devious means and does not feel bad about it. It's important to note that scammers target people who have kind hearts -- regardless of gender, age, or race -- and they take advantage of them. Scammers target the most vulnerable, including widows, widowers, and people with disabilities. We know because we regularly talk directly to people in these groups. As unscrupulous as it sounds, scammers target the bereaved because they assume that many have inherited large life insurance policies after the deaths of their spouses. They also seek out disabled individuals because they are aware that some U.S. citizens may collect monthly disability checks. Scammers are male and female, and frequently are men online posing as women. What scammers do have in common is the gift of being convincing, charming, and savvy.
Here are some tips to help prevent becoming a scam victim:
• Never send money to someone you have not met in person without verifying their identity.
• Refer all individuals who claim to be in distress overseas to the local U.S. embassy or consulate. All U.S. citizens will be assisted and not turned away. Consular officers are available 24/7 for emergencies. You can find contact information for all U.S. embassies and consulates at www.usembassy.gov. You may also contact the State Department's Office of Overseas Citizens Services at 1-888-407-4747. We can offer suggestions for verifying whether the situation is legitimate or a scam.
• Don't disclose personal details online or over the phone or even in your profile on social networking sites. For example, if you are a widow, you may not want to make this known on a dating web site -- scammers thrive on information like this.
• If you receive a call or email about a family member in distress, but are unable to speak directly to the person, call his or her house, cell phone, and other family members to make sure that the information is the truth.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs routinely provides consular services to U.S. citizens in distress abroad. Consular officers at all of our embassies and consulates overseas are available during regular business hours and 24/7 for emergencies. Through passport record checks, we can confirm the status of someone claiming to be a U.S. citizen. We can also provide emergency financial assistance for U.S. citizens abroad.
If you, or someone you know, needs emergency assistance abroad, call our overseas citizens services line at 1-888-407-4747, or, if you are overseas, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate or call 202-501-4444 in the United States.
In addition, you should report scams to:
* Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3);
* Local police;
* The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, if mail was involved; and/or
* Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection. If you want to report by phone, call 1-877-FTC-HELP or 1-877-382-4357. U.S. citizens can also watch this Federal Trade Commission video to learn how to file a complaint and help others avoid being fooled as well.
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 U.S. visa application process. If a family member, friend, or you yourself is applying for a visa to enter the United States, please be mindful of imposter or fraudulent websites. For more information, particularly about Diversity Visa scams, please read our Fraud Warning.
U.S. citizens have also reported fraudulent websites that direct 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.