Romance Scams: A New Generation of Financial Abuse
The number of people looking for love online has grown rapidly over the past few years—and so have the ranks of scammers looking to take advantage of the human desire for connection.
Romance scammers pose as attractive singles online, luring victims into romantic relationships for the purpose of emotionally manipulating them out of their money.
These scammers are not just present on online dating services; according to the FTC, around half of romance scams reported in 2020 were perpetrated on social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram.
The reality is that any site or app with a private messaging function could potentially play host to a romance scammer—they’ve even been caught operating on hyperlocal networking apps like Nextdoor and online games like Words With Friends.
Read on to find out more about these scams and learn how to protect yourself.
Romance Scams by the Numbers
Data from the FTC indicates that romance scams are on the rise, and dramatically so:
- From 2016 to 2020, consumer reports of romance scams to the FTC nearly tripled.
- From 2015 to 2020, reported total dollar losses increased more than ninefold, reaching a record $304 million in 2020. This was higher than the total losses reported for any other type of scam.
- The median individual dollar loss in 2020 was $2,500—over 10 times more than the median dollars lost to other fraud types.
- Adults in all age groups fall for romance scams. In 2020, consumer reports showed that, while victims age 40-69 tended to be more likely to lose money and those age 70 and older reported the highest median losses, reported instances of victimization more than doubled for those in their 20s—the sharpest increase among any age group.
These numbers may not even capture the full scope of the damage caused by romance scams; as the associate director of the FTC’s Division of Consumer Response and Operations, Monica Vaca, told the New York Times, this crime is “dramatically underreported”.
Traits of a Romance Scammer
Knowing how romance scammers typically operate can help you to identify and avoid them—before they can take advantage of you. Keep these red flags of romance scams in mind:
- They randomly slide into your DMs It’s wise to be cautious of any strangers messaging you with unsolicited flirtations on social media—but if that flirty stranger is someone with whom you share zero common connections, you can go ahead and check the “Potential Romance Scammer” box.
- Photos look fake: Many romance scammers set up their online profiles using stock photos, or even photos of lesser-known actors and models, so be wary of suitors who represent themselves exclusively with photos of professional quality. Try reverse image searching any suspicious photos to see if they might have been stolen.
- Photos are posted by multiple different social media accounts: Other scammers steal their photos from real social media profiles; they may even pose as the person in the photos, or use some variant of the person’s name. These are harder to immediately clock as suspicious than stolen stock photos or actor/model headshots, but if a reverse image search turns up an online profile with the same photos that seems to be unrelated to the profile you’re engaging with, that’s a big red flag.
- Personal details are inconsistent or vague: Romance scammers’ dating site profiles may have strange discrepancies, like a height/weight combination or eye color that doesn’t seem to match their photos. They may also fail to keep their cover story straight in conversation, or be unable to answer questions about their personal lives in more than the vaguest detail.
- Claims to be in another country for work: Looking for love across national lines is, of course, not a red flag in and of itself; however, romance scammers will frequently pose as citizens of the victim’s home country who are stationed abroad, often claiming to be a military officer, a doctor in an NGO, or an oil rig worker. This kind of backstory gives them an excuse to not meet in person, while also allowing them to tease the possibility of one day coming back home to be with their victim.
- Tries to make you switch to IM/email: Be wary if an online acquaintance is in a hurry to make you follow them off-platform; many online dating and social media sites allow their users to report suspicious DMs to the platform, so romance scammers will often try to move conversations with victims to venues that offer more direct communication and have fewer security measures in place. If you do decide to leave the platform, make sure to get their phone number, rather than using email or an IM service like Whatsapp, Skype, or Signal.
- Knows too much about you: Scammers will often collect information about their victims’ lives from their public online presences in order to create an artificial sense of connection. Be aware of what you’ve disclosed about yourself online, and to whom—and be very suspicious if a stranger starts talking about your hobbies, places you've been, or other personal details.
- Makes excuses to avoid video chatting: Obviously, romance scammers can never show their real faces to their victims, so they will always give some phony reason—bad internet, maybe, or a broken webcam—to get out of calling over video chat.
- Moves the relationship along quickly and intensely: Romance scammers tend to use “love bombing” tactics, such as making grand declarations of affection, flooding the victim with positive attention, and praising them excessively. They may also begin to make promises about visiting, getting married, or moving in together at an unusually early stage in the relationship. All of this is, of course, meant to manipulate their victims into falling for them too fast and hard for suspicion to take root.
- Can never meet in person: Romance scammers will make and break plans to meet their victims, sometimes doing so repeatedly before they’re found out. The ongoing pandemic has given them a host of legitimate-sounding excuses for last-minute cancellations—a positive COVID test result is a common one.
- Tries to isolate you from loved ones: A partner telling you to keep them a secret from family and friends should be a red flag in all cases! For romance scammers specifically, isolation is a tactic used to make victims more emotionally dependent, as well as to prevent them from getting an outside opinion on their romantic relationship.
Examples of Common Romance Scam Tactics
After having built up their victim’s trust over the course of weeks or months, romance scammers will try to get what they really came for: money. They tend to use a few telltale strategies, including:
- Requesting money: A romance scammer will often ply their victim with a story about a time-sensitive situation that they need immediate financial assistance to deal with, e.g. an unexpected medical bill, a missing mortgage or rent payment, debt from a gambling addiction, fees to obtain important documents, or travel expenses. They might even enlist an accomplice to call the victim and pose as a doctor, lawyer, boss, or family member to corroborate the story. The victim will typically be asked to send money via transactions that are hard to reverse and allow the recipient to remain anonymous, like wire transfers, preloaded gift cards, and reloadable debit cards.
- Laundering money through the victim: Some romance scam victims are led to believe that their partner has made a legitimate deposit into their bank account. The scammer then makes up a story about unexpectedly needing the money to be sent back or transferred to someone else. If the victim complies, they may unwittingly become a “money mule”—an accomplice to money laundering—which is a punishable crime with federal charges.
- Making investment offers: Under the guise of looking out for their partner’s financial interests, a scammer will mislead their victim into losing money to fake investment opportunities. The UK scam watchdog Action Fraud has recently identified a new trend in romance/investment fraud related to cryptocurrency and foreign exchange trading.
What to Do if You Think You’re Being Scammed
- Take a deep breath. You’re not the first person to be victimized by this type of scam. Many others have experienced what you have, and there are resources available for you to take action and prevent further financial losses.
- Tell someone you trust. Shame about the idea of having been tricked and emotional investment in your relationship with the suspected scammer could make it hard for you to trust your suspicions. Confiding in a trustworthy third party may give you a clearer view of the situation and help you to figure out how to proceed.
- Document as much as possible. Take time-stamped screenshots of your DM/text exchanges with the scammer, as well as of their online profile(s), their contact information, their call history, etc. If any exchanges of money or goods occurred between you and the scammer, make sure you have documentation of these transactions. Saving everything in a folder or spreadsheet will help you to access it easily if you need it for filing reports.
- Cut all communications with the scammer. Block them on all platforms—but be warned that they will likely persist in trying to contact you even after you do so. They may even apologize or declare that they have deep feelings for you in a final attempt at keeping you hooked. Don’t fall for it!
- Report any transactions. Contact your bank immediately if you transferred any money to or received payments from the scammer. If you sent a gift card, reach out to the company that issued it (here’s a guide from the FTC about how to do this).
- Report the scammer to any relevant platforms. Most sites and apps have a means of reporting users’ misconduct to the platform administrators. Help keep other users safe by doing so!
- File a report with local and/or federal authorities.You may wish to bring documentation of your experience to local law enforcement and file a police report—if you do, make sure to ask for a copy of the report for your records. You can also report scams directly to the FTC online at https://reportfraud.ftc.gov/, and to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at https://www.ic3.gov/.
- Stay on guard. Once they’re found out by a victim, scammers may simply fabricate a new online profile to target the same person again, or they may share information about the victim with another scammer. Keep yourself safe—familiarize yourself with the red flags of romance scams.
Online social spaces can foster genuine and valuable interpersonal connections, but, like anything in life, they come with risks. Being aware of dangers like romance scams can help you to make more informed decisions about your digital interactions and reduce the risk of being taken advantage of.
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