We all want to believe in love. Unfortunately, criminal types can be clever at exploiting that vulnerability to take financial advantage of others.
The problem has become so pervasive that Americans and Canadians have lost a reported $1 billion through such scams over the past three years, with at least one million victims in the U.S. alone. In reality, analysts believe those numbers to be higher since many incidents go unreported due to the victims’ embarrassment. Romance fraud is a worldwide issue second only to investment fraud in terms of lost money.
“Romance scams … prey on lonely people looking to connect with someone, and can often take months to develop to the point where money changes hands,” notes the Better Business Bureau. “The emotional harm to the victim can be even more painful than the monetary loss.”
In a typical scam scenario, the fraudster creates fake identities on dating apps and websites to attract potential victims. Half of all victims are 50 or older, with people 50 to 70 accounting for 70 percent of all reported losses. That said, you can be a victim whether you’re male, female, young, old, straight or gay.
Once a victim shows interest, the criminal asks to communicate with him or her by email, text, phone or video chat to probe for personal information under the guise of developing a relationship. Then he or she uses that info to glean even more info via social media and other online sources.
After a semblance of trust is established through a process known as “grooming,” the fraudster fakes some kind of “sob story” or emergency that requires the victim’s financial help. In some cases, victims become so hopeful about the new relationship that they end up handing over big money before their new “love interest” disappears. Then, he may share the victim’s info with other criminals who target that person for different kinds of financial fraud.
Fortunately, forewarned is forearmed. Awareness of the widespread nature of this problem should keep fraudsters from being able to fool good-intentioned people in the future. Remember these prevention tips if you believe romance fraud is being attempted on you or someone you know.
- Some fraudsters are savvy enough to customize their online dating profiles to what they know of you from online data. Be skeptical of perfect-seeming people, and ask for more photos or spontaneous selfies and perhaps conduct reverse image searches that can determine if a photo has been appropriated from the web.
- Google the person’s name to try to determine if it matches his contact info and persona. You may also Google sections of his conversations to see if his “pitches” have been used elsewhere.
- Be wary if the interested party avoids meeting you in person. In some cases, fraudsters even hire people to impersonate them while meeting their victims; cross-check for that by asking specific questions and comparing his online and offline personas.
- If someone in a foreign country is interested in you romantically but can never seem to meet you in person, he’s most likely scamming you. Other suspicious signs during communications include grammatical errors, broken English or incomplete sentences.
- Be cautious about inappropriate signs of emotion such as immediate professions of love or lust, pushiness, demands for action or overly effusive compliments.
- If you meet on a dating app or website, be suspicious if the person immediately tries to take the conversation to another venue, which keeps the site or app from tracking criminal behavior.
- Never send money or assets to someone you don’t know.
- Take your emotions out of the equation and look back at your interactions with this individual. What would an objective friend tell you to do?
Finally, if you suspect you’ve been a victim, it’s important to file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. There are also additional steps to take if you suspect a romance scam. Fraudsters who go unreported are likely to continue to find other unsuspecting people to target.