This has gotten so bad the U.S. embassy has issued alerts to warn people about this. Here are the basics from the embassy.
United States citizens should be alert to attempts at fraud by persons claiming to live in Russia professing friendship, romantic interest, and /or marriage intentions over the Internet.
Typically, once a connection is made, the correspondent asks the U.S. citizen to send money or credit card information for living expenses, travel expenses, or “visa costs”. Sometimes, the correspondent notifies the American citizen that a close family member, usually the mother, is in desperate need of surgery and begins to request monetary assistance. Scams have even advanced to the point where the U.S. citizen is informed of a serious or fatal accident to the correspondent and the “family” asks for money to cover hospital or funeral costs. Several citizens have reported losing thousands of dollars through such scams.
The anonymity of the Internet means that the U.S. citizen cannot be sure of the real name, age, marital status, nationality, or even gender of the correspondent. In every case reported to the embassy, the correspondent turned out to be a fictitious persona created only to lure the U.S. citizen into sending money.
These scammers have created male as well as female characters and entice same sex correspondents as well as those of the opposite sex. A disturbing recent twist are scammers who have connected to U.S. citizens through chat rooms for HIV positive individuals, posed as HIV positive individuals themselves, and asked for money for treatment or travel to the United States.
Correspondents who quickly move to professions of romantic interest or discussion of intimate matters are likely inventions of scammers. A request for funds almost always marks a fraudulent correspondent. U.S. citizens are cautioned against sending any money to persons they have not actually met. If they do choose to send money, they can take several precautions.
-They may refer to U.S. immigration web site for authoritative information about the immigration process and the true costs involved. For example, U.S. law does not require Russian visitors to have a certain amount of “pocket money” or “walking around money” in either rubles or dollars.
– They may arrange to prepay for a plane ticket directly with the carrier rather than wiring money for transportation to the traveler.
– If the correspondent provides an image of a purported U.S. visa as proof of intention to travel, the U.S. citizen may contact the United States Embassy in Moscow to ascertain the validity of the visa.
Be careful. Be skeptical. Think and then do your research.