Ahead of Valentine's Day, you're being warned by security officials to make sure your quest to find love online doesn't end up ruining your job, family and bank account.

The New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell, a division within the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, says it's seen an uptick in romance scams and so-called sextortion incidents.

"I think it's happening a lot more than what's being reported, because of the embarrassment of it," Michael Geraghty, director of the NJCCIC and the state's chief information security officer, told New Jersey 101.5. "Some of of these scams, they take people for hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Victims are dealing with professionals on the other end of the phone or computer, Geraghty noted. They can identify individuals who are vulnerable, and the more information you post online about yourself, the more data points that are available to scammers.

The ultimate goal of the bad actors, whether through sextortion or romance scams, is to get money or other perks from the victim by threatening to reveal compromising information about them, or photos and videos that they may have shared.

In the case of sextortion, scammers tell a target, whether it's true or not, that they have access to their device and found compromising media, or looked through their browsing history and picked up on some unsavory websites.

"And if you don't send us money we're going to expose you to your family and friends — that's the most common form we see," Geraghty said.

Receiving money or bitcoin is not always the endgame, though, Geraghty said. Scammers may also threaten to reveal information to loved ones or employers, unless the victims send fresh photos or videos.

Romance scams

The more detailed scams involve planning, plenty of back-and-forth communication, and possibly broken hearts.

Through what the NJCCIC refers to as romance scams, perpetrators pretend to be potential love interests of their victims, getting in touch through dating apps, texting or social media, then gaining the victims' trust and getting them to divulge personal information and, perhaps, compromising media ... before they pull the rug out from under them and threaten to reveal what they've received.

Officials advise against paying "ransom of any kind" in these situations. Such scams are typically not considered credible threats.

"I know it may be embarrassing to an individual, but they should report it," Geraghty said.

Potential victims can steer clear of scammers by looking for some red flags:

  • The person can't meet you in person for any number of reasons
  • The online picture of the individual is associated with other identities
  • The person is showering you with compliments that may be flattering to hear but aren't necessarily true

"With more and more people online and more and more use of the internet for all aspects of your life, from business to social, we've got a treasure trove of waiting victims for these fraudsters to take advantage of," Geraghty said.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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