The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), America’s official consumer protection watchdog, recently warned that romance scammers are making more money than ever before.
Victims in the US were tricked out of more than $300 million in 2020, up from $200 million in 2019.
The FTC says that the median average financial loss in a romance scam was $2500, more than ten times as much as the average for other online scams.
Here’s what you need to know, whether you want to protect yourself or to advise your friends and family if you think they are being sucked into a scam of this sort:
What are romance scams?
Romance scams, if you’ve not heard of them before, are pretty much what the name suggests, with the fake romance conducted online, something like this:
- A cybercrime gang finds you online, typically through a dating site or social media.
- The gang researches your interests using public sources such as the dating site itself, your social media accounts, and information posted by your real-life friends.
- One of the gang creates a fake online profile that aligns nicely with yours, and makes contact using an assumed personality that’s calculated to appeal to you, typically using someone else’s name and photo.
- If you show an interest, the crook carefully cultivates a “friendship” by pretending to be exactly the sort of person you’re looking for, typically over a period of weeks or months.
- You form what you think is a loving online relationship with the crook, who pretends to have fallen in love with you, too. The scammer will typically put in a lot of effort here in order to cultivate a sense of being truthful and reliable, so you may exchange hundreds of messages and voice calls with them. You can expect that they will reply quickly and apparently lovingly to all the messages you send, and that they won’t miss online “dates” they’ve promised to keep with you.
- The crook then talks you into handing over money. Typically the scammer will claim to live far away and says they can’t easily meet up with you, even if neither of you are living under coronavirus lockdowns. They then talk you into handing over money, typically a small amount at first, often followed by more and more.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the excuses given for needing money to meet up would often involve visas and air tickets, possibly with some added lawyer’s or agent’s fees thrown in for visa processing.
Typically, your “loved one” would then fail to show up at your local airport as expected, and come up with excuses such as getting arrested, having a serious accident in the taxi to the airport at their end, or one of a dizzying array of plausible, emotional, but always utterly dishonest reasons why you should send yet more funds.
As the FTC points out, the coronavirus pandemic has created a whole new set of excuses available to romance scammers for why they need more and more money, even after you’ve paid for their travel and they failed to show up the first time:
Scammers fabricate attractive online profiles to draw people in, often lifting pictures from the web and using made up names. Some go a step further and assume the identities of real people. Once they make online contact, they make up reasons not to meet in person. The pandemic has both made that easier and inspired new twists to their stories, with many people reporting that their so-called suitor claimed to be unable to travel because of the pandemic. Some scammers have reportedly even canceled first date plans due to a supposed positive COVID-19 test.
Money gone for good
These scammers typically ask to you pay using wire transfer, often using the excuse that banking facilities in the country where they are living at the moment are unreliable and corrupt.
Another common way they arrange to receive your money is to get you to buy online gift cards that they say they can redeem at their end – all you need to do, they say, is scratch the card to get the PIN, then email the PIN and the card number to them.
Sadly, both wire transfers and “spent” gift cards are equivalent to cash, so there is no way to get your money back afterwards when you realise you’ve been scammed.
Another common trick that romance scammers use, especially if they think you won’t be fooled if they insist that you send money to them, is to show their “appreciation” by sending money or a “love gift” such as jewellery to you.
Sure enough, you soon receive a courier company’s tracking notice for the specified gift, with your “loved one’s” fake name as the sender.
But the courier company and the fake website you are asked to use to accept the “gift” are all part of the scam, too.
The “delivery fees” you will now be asked to pay to receive your “gift” go straight to the scammers, and the item never shows up.
What to do?
- Don’t blame yourself if you get reeled in. These people are confidence tricksters by profession, so they have loads of practice. Unlike many online scammers, they are willing to play a long game, investing weeks, months and even years into building up false friendships.
- Consider reporting your scam to the police. You almost certainly won’t get any money back, but with your evidence and that of other victims, there is at least a possibility of identifying and stopping the criminals involved, and of warning potential future victims away from these scammers.
- Look for a support group if you feel depressed after getting scammed like this. But beware of people “reaching out” to help you online after you’ve been scammed, lest you get drawn into a scam all over again. Ignore any offers of help to “recover your money” after a scam – it’s probably the very same scammers having another try. Ask your local police or health care professional for advice.
- Listen openly to your friends and family if they try to warn you. These criminals think nothing of deliberately setting you against your family as part of their scam, using romantic excuses such as “love conquers all”. Don’t let the scammers drive a wedge between you and your family as well as between you and your money.
- Get out as soon as you realise it’s a scam. Don’t warn the scammers you suspect them, or ask them if they really do love you after all, because they will only tell you what you want to hear. Cut off contact unilaterally, abruptly and completely, and get into a genuine support group if you need help.
By the way, you can rumble some of these scammers right at the start by following the FTC’s advice of doing a reverse image search of the person they claim to be.
Sometimes, the reverse image search will lead you to someone else’s profile, and it will be pretty obvious that the scammer has simply copied someone else’s persona for their fake identity.