Online Romance Scams Are on The Rise: How To Be Safe

Be wary of potential love interests you meet online because scammers can break not only your heart but also your wallet.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that romance scams are now the costliest type of online fraud in the country. In 2018, victims of romance scams lost a whopping $143 million, eclipsing all the other incidents of fraud reported to the FTC. People lost an average of $2,600 to scammers, which increased to $10,000 if the victims were over 70 years old.

One of the most significant cases of romance scams involved $46 million stolen from victims. Federal authorities busted a criminal network and indicted 80 people for the crime. Most of the defendants charged are Nigerians preying on the elderly, businesses, and people looking for love online. For a little contrast, the reported losses for online dating fraud in 2015 was $33 million. This single case trumps that by a mile.

The Anatomy of an Online Romance Scam

Romance scammers are experts at social engineering, victim targeting, and background research. Scammers scour the web searching for candidates they can impersonate and build a bogus profile around. Most of the people they choose to use as their avatar are either from the armed forces, work in construction, or the medical field. These criminals create fake profiles on social media and dating sites or apps using counterfeit credentials.

Everything is a lie, from their age, education, religious beliefs, and profile picture. They then troll these sites looking for potential targets based on the person's age, marital status, and public posts. Romance scammers make initial contact with their victims on dating sites, Facebook, Instagram, and chat apps.

Most of the scenarios start and end the same way

Scammers build trust by being there whenever the victim wants to chat or talk. They are compassionate, understanding, and always listening. They know exactly what to say because they studied their victims' profiles extensively. The last part of the dance is when the romance scammer makes up a sob story and asks the victim to send over money, promising to pay it back as soon as possible.

In most cases, the victim falls hard for the scammer. He/she keeps on sending money, despite never receiving any payment back or finally meeting the supposed lover in person.

Beware of the Lies

The modus operandi of scammers and their lies are mostly the same. They'll tell their victims they're traveling or living outside the U.S.

Some of the most used lies are:

  • I work in construction.
  • I have a building and construction business and currently working on a project.
  • I'm an active member of the military.
  • I'm a medical doctor working in an international organization.

When it comes to asking for money, scammers usually tell their targets these lies:

  • Pay medical expenses for an illness or surgery.
  • Pay off a gambling debt.
  • Pay customs fees to send or retrieve something.
  • Ran out of funding for a construction job.
  • Pay for a plane ticket and visa so they can finally come over to meet the victim in person.
  • They are trapped in an airport and in need of funds for traveling documents to get out and see the victim.

Scammers ask for money in different ways. Some ask their victims to wire cash, while others use reload cards or gift cards from Amazon, Steam, or iTunes. Scammers love using gift and reload cards because they can get the cash fast while remaining anonymous. Transactions of this nature are next to impossible to reverse.

If you suspect you're the target of a romance scam:

  • Stop all communications with the person ASAP.
  • Report it and file a complaint at ftc.gov/complaint.
  • Investigate background information by using online background check companies and tools.
  • Check if other people posted similar scam stories by searching for the type of job the person claims to have (e.g. “oil rig scammer”)
  • Conduct a reverse image search on Google Images using the profile picture of the person to see if it belongs to someone else. If there are several accounts and the details don't add up, you're dealing with a fake profile.
  • Talk to someone close to you whom you trust and would give you a no B.S. assessment of your new love interest.

Avoid Falling for Romance Scams and Keep Your Money

If you frequent dating sites and are active on social media, keep your profile private and never respond to strangers claiming they know someone in your circle. On the money side, the advice is simple: never send money or gifts to someone you've never met in person. That's it. You'll see a drastic change in the person once you say no to a money request, and you'll know in a heartbeat that he/she is trying to scam you.

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