Are you helping a U.S. citizen or are you being scammed?
Thank you for seeking to help a U.S. citizen in distress. U.S. embassies and consulates stand ready to help detained U.S. citizens and victims of crime abroad.
However, if you have never met the person you are trying to help it is likely you have been targeted by a scammer. We know this is difficult to believe but it is incredibly common. We receive emails and calls every day from well-meaning individuals who are unaware that they have been targeted by fraudsters.
Not everyone is kind and genuine. These criminals are experts at impersonating people including romantic partners, military members, police, doctors and airport staff. It is easy for them to hide their real name, nationality, race or gender. You might have been communicating with multiple scammers pretending to be the same person.
Scammers may dedicate weeks, months or even years to gaining your trust before asking for money, or they might have been manipulating you into offering money. We urge you to stop all contact with this individual and anyone claiming to represent them.
Do not send money.
Please check the warning signs listed below and click on each scenario for more information. Keep reading for information about how to report the scam.
They are incredibly unlucky/things keep going wrong
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
- Falsely arrested or detained at the airport
- Hospitalized but not being treated until fees are paid
- Kidnapped or mugged with extreme violence
A child or elderly relative may be involved, which makes the situation sound even more sad and urgent.
Perhaps you have tried to help before, but a new hurdle arose – a lost phone, repeated flight delays, an unexpected customs fees, taxes or a confiscated passport?
Real airport, embassy/consulate, hospital and police officials can help when emergencies arise so if you’re being contacted with request for money or multiple sad stories designed to get you to offer money then it’s most likely a scam.
You should recommend the person in distress directly contact the U.S. embassy or consulate nearest them. If they can get a hold of you, they are able to contact the embassy.
The Embassy refused to help
U.S. embassies and consulates have resources to help U.S. citizens in distress so if you’re being told we refused to help, this is another hallmark of a scam. They’re hoping you will believe them and not reach out to us to find out the truth.
The scammer may even say they are detained at a U.S. embassy or consulate or that they are contacting you on behalf of someone that has been detained. That is incorrect – embassies and consulates do not detain people.
You’ve been asked to send money
This is the end goal of scams. Requests for money may not come immediately – criminals will spend weeks, months or years making sure they have gained your trust first. In some cases, they won’t ask for money at all. Instead, they will manipulate you into offering because you feel sorry for them and you want to help.
They will often insist you use a particular money transfer service. This is because it’s harder to trace and easier for anyone to collect the funds. Look for warning signs: the transfer details given may not match who or where they say they are.
Criminals will try to rush you, panic you, and make you feel guilty. Don’t be pushed. It’s OK to say no.
We strongly advise that you do not send money under any circumstances, and cease all contact with this person and anyone claiming to represent them. Remember, if someone can contact you then they could contact the police, their next of kin or the Embassy instead. If they say we have refused to help, don’t believe them. We are here to help U.S. citizens in genuine distress.
These resources may be useful to you:
MoneyGram Fraud Prevention
Western Union’s Fraud Knowledge Center
The hospital is refusing to treat them until a bill is paid
Many of the scenarios used by scammers sound alarming but are entirely fictional.
You may have been contacted by a “hospital official” to make the claim sound more realistic, but it is easy for a fraudster to impersonate multiple people. In many cases the hospital doesn’t exist, does not provide the type of medical services that the person supposedly needs, or is in a completely different part of the country than the person claimed to be. Remember, scammers are usually based abroad, not in Germany or the U.S.
Remember, if someone can contact you then they can contact the police, their next of kin or the Embassy instead. If they say we have refused to help, don’t believe them. We are here to help U.S. citizens in genuine distress.
They are being held at an airport due to a customs bill, departure tax or BTA
Scammers make up entirely fictional problems to explain why they can’t visit you or need more money. In the Germany, customs/tax officials do not imprison travelers, hotel staff do not confiscate passports. There is no entry fee or departure tax.
Remember, if someone can contact you then they can contact the police, their next of kin or the Embassy instead. If they say we have refused to help, don’t believe them. We are here to help U.S. citizens in genuine distress
They sent you a copy of a passport or other official document to ‘prove’ their identity
It is very easy for scammers to use modern technology to create fake passport pages or other documents to support their false claims.
The person you think you are talking to may be entirely fictional, or the scammer might have stolen someone’s photographs online without that person’s knowledge.
Your relationship progressed rapidly / they started calling you by a nickname quickly
Did your relationship move very quickly to declarations of love and even engagement, even though you have never met in person? It is certainly possible to find love online but if things moved extremely quickly this can be a sign that they are trying to gain your trust so that you will send them money sooner.
Many of the people that contact us truly believe that they are engaged or even married in absentia to someone who has, in fact, used a false identity to defraud them.
Did they start calling you ‘honey,’ ‘babe,’ ‘darling’ or another terms of endearment early on? Sadly, scammers target lots of people at the same time and it is easier for them to not have to remember names.
They quickly asked you to contact them directly / they asked you not to tell loved ones
Scammers exploit uncertainty and secrecy, which is why they will often move conversations away from dating sites quickly, and perhaps encourage you not to talk about the relationship with friends or family.
They may tell you that their device can’t make video calls, they don’t like speaking on the phone/being on video, or family commitments mean they can’t speak to you by phone or video. In reality, they prefer messaging because that way several scammers can pretend to be the same person, and you won’t be able to see that they don’t look like the photos they sent you
They claim to be a native English speaker but their messages are not fluent
You may recognize some of these warning signs:
- Poor spelling and grammar
- Inconsistent email addresses, subject lines and/or incorrect website addresses
- Overuse of capital letters
- Messages are not addressed to a specific person and/or they are unsigned
Be skeptical – do their messages match the upbringing and level of education they claimed to have had?
If you received messages from someone you have never heard of, your email address may have been guessed at random or may be on a list sold by another scammer. You should report spam through your email account and block the sender.
You’ve been contacted by someone you have met and know well but it doesn’t sound like them
Here are warning signs that your loved one’s email account or other records may have been accessed without their knowledge:
- You would not expect this person to contact you in an emergency.
- They had no plans to travel abroad.
- There are typos, grammatical errors or turns of phrase that you wouldn’t expect from the person you know.
- Unusual phrases like ‘I am writing this with tears in my eyes.’
- You are not addressed by name, or your name is shown in an unusually formal way rather than the nickname or term of endearment they would usually use when contacting you.
- The email is unsigned.
- If you receive a call, it is difficult to understand and doesn’t sound like the person you know.
Your loved one may not be aware that the message has been sent. With emails, this happens when a scammer discovers the password to the email account and uses it to send the same scam message to everyone in the email account’s address book.
Try to contact your loved one another way – such as by telephone or via a mutual friend or a family member – to verify their well-being and advise them their email account or personal data appears to have been compromised. They should change their email password as soon as possible, and make sure they don’t use it for any other online accounts.
You’ve been told you have won a lottery, or you are due an unexpected refund or inheritance
You may recognize some of these warning signs:
- The offer seems too good to be true.
- You have been told you have won a lottery that you did not enter or qualify to inherit from someone you never met.
- You have been asked to pay taxes or fees to retrieve your windfall. This is a ploy to get money from you.
- The message comes from a free web-based email address (such as Gmail or Outlook) and does not look official, with frequent spelling and grammar errors.
- You were advised to keep your win, refund or inheritance secret. This is so no-one can warn you it is a scam.
- An ‘official’ has contacted you about your windfall. Unfortunately, it is increasingly common for scammers to pretend to be police or government officers pretending to ‘confirm’ fraudulent claims.
What you can do
The Embassy does not have a law enforcement arm so please see the organizations below to report your experience. If you are unsure whether or not you are being scammed, you can call one of the helplines below.
- The Federal Trade Commission: they can provide information about identity theft.
- Financial Conduct Authority (FCA): find out how to be ScamSmart and report a scam involving financial services regulated by FCA in the U.S..
- The Internet Crime Complaint Center: a partnership among the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BIA).
- Money Saving Expert: What to do if you’ve been scammed.
- U.S. Secret Service to report international monetary fraud.
- Your bank and/or any money transfer service you used if you have sent money.
Do not try to confront the scammer, tell them that you have found them out, or investigate them yourself. Replying will only encourage more scam messages.
It is common for fraudsters to pose as different fictional people or organizations, or to sell contact details to other scammers. Some even pretend to be officials helping to recover money lost in the original scam. This is known as ‘fraud recovery fraud.’
Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that any money that has been sent to scammers can be recovered.
You don’t need to feel embarrassed or ashamed. Scammers are extremely convincing, and they have exploited your kindness. That is not your fault. Sadly, this kind of fraud is extremely common. The National Trading Standards Scams Team has received reports just like yours from people ageing from 19 to 106.