Romance is in the air with Valentine’s Day just around the corner. And in addition to chocolates and roses, you should be on the lookout for scammers who take advantage of the lonely and brokenhearted.
Americans reported losing $143 million in romance schemes in 2018 – more than they lost to any other type of fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The median reported loss was $2,600. For people over 70, it was $10,000.
But even those figures are probably low. Because of the embarrassment factor, it’s estimated that only 15% of victims report these schemes.
In just one case last August, the Justice Department brought charges against 80 defendants for “participating in a massive conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a variety of fraud schemes,” including so-called romance scams.
A classic romance scam works like this: Scammers set up an account on Facebook or an online dating site with fake pictures and profiles. (Naturally, they will make themselves look as appealing as possible.)
But it goes deeper than that…
They will often stalk potential victims online, looking at profiles to learn as much about a person as possible. They will use this information to start a connection, whether it’s a favorite movie or sports team, a certain kind of pet, hobby, or travel destination.
In other words, they will use your own social network posts and online dating profile to make themselves seem like a perfect fit for you.
Once they’ve established a connection, the scammers will typically move the conversation off wherever it started to a more “private” setting. Whether by email, text or phone, the scammer will spend a lot of time communicating with a potential victim, trying to deepen the relationship.
The next step typically involves declarations of love and a desire to meet in person (romance scammers often describe themselves as Americans who live or work overseas). Then, inevitably, a request for money follows, usually in small increments at first but increasing over time.
“It may take weeks or months to get to this point, but just know that he needs the money desperately,” the FBI explains.
He needs it to finish a job so he can come see you. He needs to buy a plane ticket. There’s always some urgent need – and then another and another. He promises to pay you back soon, but he never does. It’s hard to give up on the love of your life and the future he promised you, but this fraudster won’t stop until you do.
Anyone can fall victim to this kind of “sweetheart scam.” But people aged 40 to 69 reported losing money to romance scams at the highest rates – and at more than twice the rate of people in their 20s.
And women over 40 who are widowed, divorced or disabled are the most common targets.
Between 2015 and 2018, reports of romance scams increased fourfold, according to the FTC. The trend is likely to keep increasing as more people use online dating sites and the crooks become more sophisticated.
“Scammers are becoming more advanced in their techniques, including using chatbots to reach more people at a faster rate and evolving their messages to remain current,” according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization.
Here are some things you can do to protect yourself from these rogues.
Stay mysterious. Be careful what you post online. The more specific the information you post, the easier it is for scammers to build a profile of you.
All major social networks have settings so you can limit who can (and can’t) see your profile and posts. Take advantage of these security settings, which can also help protect against identity theft.
Limiting who can see your posts is tougher on online dating sites, so use extra precautions if someone comes on “too fast” or quickly asks you to leave the dating site and communicate via email, text or phone.
Trust, but verify. Do an online search for the person who’s contacted you. See if you can confirm they are who they say they are. Search Google Images to see if the picture associated with your online sweetheart really belongs to someone else.
It’s also good to check in with a friend or family member to see whether they notice anything “off” or concerning about the person.
On a related note, it’s a big warning sign if someone “professes love quickly and tries to isolate you from friends and family,” the FBI says. If you’re taking care of an elderly friend or relative, be on alert if they suddenly withdraw and become fixated on a new, mysterious love interest.
Be generous of heart, not of wallet. Getting taken for a ride emotionally is one thing, and the pain can be real. But don’t let heartbreak break the bank.
The bottom line is these scammers are after your cash. “If an online love interest asks you for money, walk away – no matter how compelling the story,” the FTC warns.
If you’re concerned about romance fraud, cut off communications with the perpetrator immediately. Report the scammer to the FTC, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center or your state’s attorney general.
Also report the crook to the site where they originally found you.
As a general rule, the larger sites like Facebook, Match and eharmony do more to safeguard their (legitimate) members. But nothing is guaranteed, so be on guard against people looking to take advantage of the purehearted.
P.S. Only 15% of victims report these crimes – but if they shared their stories, it would go a long way toward protecting others from getting caught in similar traps.
We all have our different blind spots, so there’s no shame in admitting where they are. So please, if you feel comfortable, share your experiences and tips for others in the comments. And most importantly, remember to stay safe online.