Could You Fall in Love with a Fraudster? How to Spot Romance Scams
There's no good kind of cybercrime, but romance scams can be among the most brutal. In addition to financial harm, victims are left to deal with heartbreak, shame and feelings of betrayal.
"I'm out all that money, and I don't think I'll ever get it back, and at 76, I don't have a whole lot of future," North Carolina resident Jennifer Dennis, a romance scam victim, told a Chicago news outlet.1 "It's devastating for me."
The approaches are as creative as the perpetrators are cruel. The North Carolina woman lost $70,000, believing she was investing in a new home with her romantic partner. In Massachusetts, a woman "loaned" her apparent boyfriend nearly $200,000 before realizing it was a scam.2 A California woman lost a toe-curling $2.3 million, believing her online love was helping her invest in cryptocurrency.3
The most recent FBI data shows more than 19,000 people fell victim to romance or confidence scams in 2022, losing a collective $735,882,192. Further, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) logged romance scam reports from 70,000 people claiming losses totaling $1.3 billion.4,5
Before you think it could never happen to you, it's important to know exactly how these scams work — and why so many victims are entrapped every year.
What Are Romance Scams?
Romance scams, also called confidence scams or online dating fraud, are a type of cybercrime that happens when a bad actor builds an emotional connection with a victim online to manipulate them into sending the scammer money or something else of value, like personal information.
How Do Romance Scams Work?
The power (and cruelty) of romance scams lies in how varied and personal they are. Scammers target victims online who are looking for love. According to the FTC, about 40% of romance scam victims meet perpetrators on social media, and 19% connect on a website or app like a dating service. Scammers often use information from a potential victim's social media accounts to learn how to attract them.
After making an initial connection, the fraudster will quickly move their conversation with the victim from their original online meeting place to a different messaging app. This is to avoid disruption to the relationship if and when the scammer is kicked off a dating app after being outed for fraud. They might also make claims that the primary app isn't secure — whereas others can see their conversations — and might suggest to go somewhere more private.
Romance scammers begin their fraud by claiming to be temporarily working far away. According to Norton, common excuses are that they're working on a construction project outside the country; deployed overseas with the military; a doctor serving an international organization; or working on an oil rig.6
Emotionally entrapping victims typically involves moving quickly — declaring love or discussing marriage early on — but scammers often still take the time to develop connections with their victims. The women who shared their stories with the news outlets above spent weeks or months believing they were getting to know and trust their fake romantic partners. (Keep in mind, it's not just women who are preyed upon. Infosecurity Magazine reported that men are the victims in 52% of cases of romance scams.)
Once a victim seems sufficiently attached, the financial fraud begins. The scammer will ask for money for a variety of reasons — some as ordinary as a medical bill or asking for money to fly home, and others as seemingly unique as needing financial help moving inherited gold bars out of the country or offering to help a victim learn how to invest. Often, the money requests will continue as long as the victim continues to pay. Some romance scammers will ask instead for compromising photos and then use the images as blackmail.
Romance scammers asking for money tend to request a specific payment type. The FTC says the most common requested payment methods are:
Bank wire transfer
What Can You Do To Protect Yourself?
The reality of romance scams could be enough to put off anyone from online dating. But 10% of all long-term partnerships, including marriages, began in dating apps, according to Pew Research Center, including 20% of partnerships under 30.7 Finding romantic happiness is possible online, but dating app users must proceed with caution to avoid fraud.
To protect against romance scams:
Look for the romance scam patterns noted above, including fast-moving relationships, claims of living temporarily overseas, moving conversations to another app, and canceling plans to meet.
Telling them about romance scams and making them aware of the red flags to look for.
Encouraging them to talk about their online relationships.
Patiently and neutrally pointing out any red flags.
If possible, keeping records of all your relative's online conversations.
What To Do If You've Been a Victim of a Romance Scam
Knowing you've become a romance scam victim becomes fairly clear after you've given the scammer money — they either disappear or continue to ask for more. But even if you haven't yet lost money, you should immediately take action if you discover a supposed romantic partner isn't who they say they are. Here's are three steps you should take once you've detected a scam:
Alert the dating site or social media company where the scam started.
Falling victim to a romance scam can fill people with embarrassment, among many other emotions. But tens of thousands of people are entrapped by this fraud every year, and total losses make romance scams the fifth costliest cybercrime, according to the FBI. There's no shame in being targeted by a scammer.
Understanding the red flags to watch for and proceeding with caution can help people continue to make meaningful, real emotional connections — from those who ask only for companionship and care, not financial support.
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