It’s the season of love and, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, there’s nothing better than telling the person that you care about how much they mean to you.
But in a time when so many of people are turning to online dating sites and apps to find the right person, scammers are taking the opportunity to trick you into parting ways with your hard-earned cash.
If you’ve never heard of a romance scam before, we’re here to tell you everything that you need to know, how you can protect yourself, and what you should do if you think you might have come up against a scammer.
What is a Romance Scam?
Sometimes referred to as “Sweetheart Scams”, romance scams happen when a criminal (or even a group posing as an individual) takes on a fake online identity in order to gain your trust. They’ll then abuse that close relationship that you’ve built to manipulate you or steal your money.
These are professional criminals who know exactly what they’re doing. They spend most of their time on dating and social media sites looking for their next victims. In 2020 alone, the FTC reported that over $304 million was lost to romance scams all over the country, a 50% increase over 2019. With so many of us spending more time in our homes and online, it’s hardly surprising.
You might be wondering how so many people fall for something like this. That’s why scammers will attempt to build trust as quickly as possible, by messaging several times a day and inventing a believable story that makes you empathize with them.
There will be some reason that they cannot meet you in person, but they’ll ask for money to cover an “emergency” cost like a medical or legal fee. Since we all want to believe that people have the best intentions and are telling us the truth, it doesn’t take much for these criminals to have you hand over funds or even your bank account information.
Where You Can Meet Potential Scammers
Dating apps and social media sites are the most common places for people to run into scammers. It only takes a few minutes to create a fake profile that looks real and believable. Since the goal is to build connections like friendships or even romantic relationships, these sites are the perfect place for scammers to lurk.
Former U.S. Secret Service Special Agent John Joyce explains it best:
“They chat over the internet and exchange photos. The scammer typically sends photographs of a very good-looking woman or man, depending on who their target is. The victim thinks they have developed a relationship and over time falls in love. Eventually, the scammer comes up with a story about how he/she has a major life problem that requires an outlay of money. The victim, feeling the need to help their new-found love, ends up wiring money over and over again to this person.”
In many cases, the scammer is located outside of the United States, making it very difficult for the victim to verify who they really are and reclaim their lost money.
What Are Common Romance Scam Lies?
If you’re suspicious of someone that you’re speaking with online, there are several red flags that you can look for before probing for further information.
Scammers will often say that they’re working overseas, either as part of the military, on an oil rig or construction site, or as a doctor with an international organization. These are some of the most common lies as the circumstances make it almost impossible to meet in person.
The scammers will uphold the story that, once they’re back in the US, they would be very happy to meet. However, when the time comes, they will claim that a traumatic or unexpected event has occurred which is preventing them from meeting up.
What Do Romance Scammers Ask For?
Financial gain is usually what’s in it for the criminals. They know that people won’t send money for no reason, so the lies that they tell in order to gain access to your cash can be quite elaborate.
Many will ask for plane tickets, travel visas, or to have other travel expenses and documents paid, particularly when they’re working from a story that they’re located overseas. Medical or gambling costs are also common lures, with scammers asking for surgery expenses to be covered or debts to be paid off.
You may also find scammers asking for educational fees to be paid, like tuition or boarding, telephone bills, or any other kinds of financial expenses that they supposedly have.
Who Do Romance Scammers Target?
Unfortunately, certain individuals are easy targets for internet dating scams. Widows, seniors, or divorcees are some of the most common targets as criminals generally operate under the assumption that these people are the most vulnerable.
As these individuals are usually older, scammers believe that they will have more money and are a better time investment for their criminal activities. But that doesn’t mean that younger people can’t be victims too.
Teenagers and young adults may be the most tech-savvy, but their constant access to the internet via smartphones and other devices leaves them vulnerable. A 2021 report. found that, between 2017 and 2020, scams committed against people under 20 increased by 156%, more than any other age group.
What Will Romance Scammers Ask You to Do?
In most cases, the scammer will ask you to send money to them directly so that they can address whatever financial issue they’ve told you about. Usually, this involves wiring money from your bank account to theirs, or even providing your bank account details so that they can arrange the transfer.
Reloadable gift cards have also become a popular avenue for scammers to exploit people with. Digital payments and gift cards for online stores like Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, or Steam are common. These payments are difficult to track, impossible to reverse and maintain high levels of anonymity. This makes it even more difficult for law enforcement to trace back to scammers.
How to Avoid Falling for Romance Scams
If there’s only one thing that you remember from this post, let it be this:
Never send money or gifts to someone online that you have never met in person.
There are some other ways that you can keep yourself safe online, though. Be cautious about how much and the type of information you choose to share online, especially on sites that have limited privacy settings.
If you do meet someone online, do some extra research about that person. Google their name to see what comes up about them, like the company they work for or other information they might have shared. It’s important to go beyond the single site or app that you’re connecting with them on to help verify who they are. Take your relationship slowly and ask them lots of questions about their life.
It’s also helpful to inform other people in your life about this new person. Not only is this good for online safety, but also your personal safety should you choose to meet them in person. If they continually push off meeting in real life or have a hundred excuses, this should be an immediate red flag.
Just as you would with other online scams, look for misspelled words or incorrect grammar. Of course, if the person you’re talking to acknowledges that English is a second language for them or that they struggle with this type of communication, this doesn’t always mean that they’re a scammer. But be smart and err on the side of caution when it comes to meeting people online.
Reporting Romance Scams
If you believe that you’ve been a victim of a romance scam, the most important step that you can take is to report it. The FTC has a site dedicated to fraud reports and you should consider contacting your local law enforcement. You can also report the individual to the website or app that you met them in order to flag their account as a scam and help protect other users.
If you’ve paid the scammer with a gift card, contact the company that issued the card as soon as possible. They may be able to issue you a refund if you act quickly enough. The same is true if you wired money from your bank. Let your local bank know that you’ve been a victim of a scam and that fraud has occurred. They will be able to help you prevent further misuse of your accounts and set up new ones if needed.
To learn more about romance scams and how to protect yourself, visit the FBI's resource page.