Dating websites come in all flavors.
Some draw in clientele from certain religious or ethnic backgrounds. Others are based on sexual preference, or target pet lovers, marijuana aficionados, vegetarians and those who favor mustaches.
There are also sites that cater to rich men and women who are willing to help others financially in exchange for companionship.
And that’s the starting point for a scam that tricked a woman out of $4,670 in a three-day whirlwind of broken promises.
Angie, who asked us not to use her last name, posted a free profile on SeekingArrangement.com, a site that promises to hook up “Sugar Daddies” or “Sugar Mommas” with “Sugar Babies.”
Angie, 30, said she heard about the site from a friend. It was tempting, she said, because she was tired of going on dates with immature men and she could use some extra cash.
Worldwide, the SeekingArrangement.com boasts 1.8 million Sugar Daddies and 450,000 Sugar Mommas. Of Sugar Babies, it says it has 1.3 million male and 5.8 million female members.
The site says it helps to foster “Mutually Beneficial Arrangements.”
“An arrangement is where people are direct with one another and stop wasting time,” the site says. “It allows people to immediately define what they need and want in a relationship.”
It continues to describe the site: “Sugar Babies enjoy a life of luxury by being pampered with fine dinners, exotic trips and allowances. In turn, Sugar Daddies or Mommas find beautiful members to accompany them at all times.”
Angie decided to try a free membership. (Other memberships, which offer more access and services, start at $19.95 a month for Sugar Babies and $79.95 a month for Sugar Daddies and Mommas, with discounts for multi-month plans. The most expensive membership costs more than $2,000 a year.)
“I joined in hopes to find some companionship as well as some financial help/stability,” said Angie, who works for a non-profit and lives paycheck to paycheck. “Ideally, I want to pay off my student loans quicker than I am able to right now so I can have more financial freedom in years to come.”
She had no great expectations, but figured she had nothing to lose by trying the site.
She was wrong.
Just hours after she posted her profile — on a Thursday — Angie received a message from a man who called himself Steven Morgan.
Steven, 54, said he was a widower who worked as the CEO of a mining company.
“We proceeded to talk via text messages where he explained he would give me a weekly allowance of $2,000, but would start by giving me $500 to pamper myself,” Angie said.
To make the payments happen, Steven said, he would need Angie’s online banking information.
“I was reluctant and hesitant, explaining how uncomfortable I felt doing so and he assured me that he would not be able to do anything with my identity or funds because he didn’t have my Social Security number or any other pertinent information,” Angie said.
To boost Angie’s confidence, Steven sent her a copy of his driver’s license. It looked real and matched the information he had given her, Angie said. She Googled his name, she said, but it was a common name so no red flags came up.
“I finally caved and he deposited four checks into my account via mobile deposit,” Angie said. “He said that in order for the auto pay/allowance to work, there would have to be a number of transactions to equal $3,000 between my account and his secretary’s account.”
The details get a little murky here.
In between some sweet talk, more checks were deposited into her account and Angie followed Steven’s instructions — which were peppered with comments about buying Angie a new car and paying off her $30,000 in student loans — on how to send the funds to his secretary’s account.
In all, Steven deposited — and Angie sent out — $4,670.
Then on Saturday night, just three days after their first contact, Steven texted Angie to ask a favor.
He needed her to send $900 via Moneygram to his niece, who supposedly had an accident and needed emergency medical attention.
“At this point I knew something was up and I changed all of my account info and simply said I wasn’t able to transfer money at that time,” Angie said. “The following Tuesday, I looked at my account to find all the checks had bounced and my account was overdrawn by $4,670.”
She knew she’d been had.
Angie reached out to SeekingArrangement.com, but it didn’t offer any help, she said.
She talked to her bank, but it said it couldn’t do anything because she gave Steven her account information.
It’s what authorities call a “victim-assisted crime.”
Angie had more questions.
“After looking back on the checks, there is no signature, no account number on them. They are so clearly fraudulent checks,” Angie said, noting the bank made the full value of the checks available to her before they officially “cleared.”
Even when a bank releases money to your account, it doesn’t mean the bank actually has those funds in hand. And it’s perfectly legal.
“Federal Reserve rules govern availability and though the funds from the check may not be immediately available, in many cases, they will be available before the bank knows the funds are good,” said Doug Johnson, senior vice president, payments and cybersecurity policy at the American Bankers Association (ABA). “Most checks are now increasingly processed electronically which speeds up the clearing of checks, making this gap in time smaller and smaller.”
It’s a convenience to have your money available quicker, but if you withdraw money against a check that ultimately bounces, it’s still your responsibility.
And the con artists know it. That gap in time is what makes these fake check scams so successful.
If the bank didn’t release all the money until the check actually cleared, Angie’s losses would have been minimal.
Johnson recommends you never accept a check or enter into an arrangement that requires you to make an initial payment in order to receive a check. And if possible, he said, wait a few days after depositing a check before using those funds.
It’s good advice in today’s world of electronic banking, but it’s too late for Angie.
THE REST OF THE STORY
We also took a closer look at Steven Morgan but couldn’t find anyone by that name who was in his alleged age range or at the address on his driver’s license.
We also tried some reverse photo lookups, but came up empty. Odds are the photos sent to Angie are not really of the scammer, but are of some innocent guy. That’s why we blacked out his face.
The company Steven said he works for really does exist, but a very different person is the CEO.
We asked SeekingArragement.com what it does to protect its members from scams.
A spokeswoman sent us some links to safety tips on its site.
“The site does offer a third party background check and we encourage our members to only date background verified members,” the spokeswoman said. Those services would cost $50 for Sugar Daddies and Mommas and $25 for Sugar Babies. “Plus, there is an in-house customer support team that watches for suspicious activity and monitors reports from members.”
But that’s no help if the members start communicating off the site via text message or email.
“I’ve never felt so vulnerable and taken advantage of,” Angie said.
We hope you take away some lessons about how banks treat check deposits so you’ll never fall for a fake check scam.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.