In 2016, the FBI reported almost 15,000 complaints categorized as romance scams, internet dating scams, or confidence schemes—and the financial losses to individuals exceeded $230 million. The states with the highest numbers of victims were California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Scammers lurk on social media and dating sites setting up profiles, both male and female. A scam begins with grooming the victim. When contact is first made the scammer will usually want to leave the initial meeting website and move onto instant messaging. The scammer will present a story of a person working or living overseas. They present themselves as a thoughtful, caring and loving person looking for their soul mate. They will claim it was destiny or fate that brought you together.
They Play a Long Game
These scams can come from an individual — or, some are even set up like any for-profit business — in fact, you might not be communicating with the same person each time. These scammers are good at what they do—after all, for most of them, this is their job. These types of scam aren’t easy to recognize at first; the scammer will ask lots of questions to get to know you, to learn how to respond to you. By doing so, they’re learning how to manipulate you, by:
- Using social media to manipulate the victim and say whatever the victim wants to hear so be careful with what you post online
- Seeking people who are vulnerable or desperately looking for love, especially people who are widowed or divorced
- Asking for recent photos and sending one or more of themselves
- Claiming to love you immediately—or within a few days
- Seeming too perfect or quickly asking you to leave a dating service or Facebook to go “offline”
- Trying to isolate you from your family and friends
Beware if the individual promises to meet in person, but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
Eventually, they will start asking for money. They will be short one month and need groceries or not have enough for a utility bill. As the weeks become months, suddenly they or a relative will have a medical or other financial emergency—such as being evicted and needing to move suddenly—and the requested amounts begin to increase. The scammer may say that they need to mail you a check they somehow cannot cash—a check that will end their financial woes.
Being in possession of fraudulent checks is a crime on its own. In this day and age of ever-increasing identity theft and scams, it is unlikely you will leave the bank with cash in hand. The bank may tell you it will take a few days to clear and cash the check. If you are able to successfully deposit the check into your account, your newfound love will ask you to wire the funds to them (usually via Western Union or MoneyGram). A few days pass and the issuing bank contacts you to inform you the check was fraudulent, but you’ve already wired those funds overseas. Your account may be overdrawn, and unfortunately you may be liable for the loss. These types of money transfer scams are illegal.
It Can Happen to Anyone
If you feel you are the victim of a romance scam:
- Immediately cease all contact with the scammer after making a note of all their information they’ve provided. Block their email address, social media, and telephone numbers
- Contact Western Union or MoneyGram to see if the payment has been retrieved. If not, cancel it
- Save all your email conversations and instant messages in a file on your computer. Make multiple hard copies of everything to give to reporting agencies. Retain all receipts and envelopes, or boxes—anything that can be used as evidence
- Report the scammer to whatever site you were contacted on, as well as to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), and your local police department. Your local police may not be capable of immediate assistance, but the report creates a paper trail of evidence for you
- If you suspect an item you deposited is fraudulent, contact the issuing bank’s fraud department as well.
- If you have been sent packages or letters to forward for a scammer, keep the envelopes or shipping package for evidence.
Avoid scams in any relationship, whether in person or online—if you’re asked to provide money or personal information without legitimate, legal commitment, beware. It should make you pause, and reconsider the relationship as a whole. Don’t waste your time on scammers who want to cause you and your finances harm. Remember, there are real, viable relationships to be made online—but be smart about protecting yourself.