According to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), the number of romance scams reported to them is higher compared to any other type of fraud; its rates are up to six times higher. In 2018 alone, $143 million was lost in romance scams, which translated to a median of $2,600. Notably, for people over 70 years, the median loss in the same year was $10,000.
Moreover, according to the FBI, the numbers of romance scams are growing faster than any other form of online crime. Particularly, the numbers could be more because it is believed that 85% of the victims feel too embarrassed to report.
The fraudsters begin by establishing trust in their target victims by lavishing you with attention. So they contact you using their fake profiles on dating apps or social media sites like Google Hangouts, Facebook, Instagram, and most recently, LinkedIn. They will chat or call several times a day to create a relationship with you. Then afterward, they will come up with a convincing story and ask you for money.
Note that the romance scammers can be very patient and will dedicate their time to win you over. And they know too well that trust takes time to build, just like in real-life romance. So they will invest in poetry, long e-mails, gifts, and declarations of love; face-to-face meetings may be planned, but the scammer will always come up with fake emergencies.
Romance scammers have really perfected their craft, and some even use pre-written scripts. For instance, a woman in Britain was found guilty of writing scripts for online dating scams in 2016 and had to serve a two-year jail term.
Lies Romance Scammers Tell
Romance scammers often say that they are working outside their home countries as doctors with international organizations, in an oil rig, in business, or even the military. They could ask for money to sort issues like:
- Visa or other traveling documents
- Customs fee to retrieve something
- Traveling expenses like plane tickets
- Paying gambling debts
- Medical expenses for surgery
- Legal problems
- Frozen bank accounts
- Recovery from robbery
- Acquiring capital for a business opportunity
Usually, the scammer will start small and ask for little amounts of money. Once you are hooked, they will go ahead and ask for more substantial amounts of cash to allegedly get them out of a crisis. Remember that they will have someone to back up their stories—for instance, a lawyer, a doctor, or a friend.
Once you agree to “help out,” the scammer will ask you to pay through:
- Gift cards from Steam, iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon
- Reload cards like MoneyPak
- Wire transfer
And scammers prefer wired transfer or prepaid cards because:
- The transactions are not easy to reverse
- They can remain anonymous
- They can get the money quickly
- It’s hard to trace
Signs of a Romance Scammer
- Profess their love and affection for the victim too fast
- Plans a visit but keeps aborting the travel plans because of an “emergency”
- Claims to be from the U.S., U.K., or Australia, but are working overseas
- Asks for money for emergencies that don’t exist
- Asks for money to come to visit but never show up
- Their profiles are scanty
- Their English is limited
Romance Scam Favorite Victims
a. Professionally successful people
Victims of romance scams are neither naïve nor dumb. In fact, a 2009 study showed that most of them are doing quite well in their careers and also make good decisions in other aspects of their lives. However, when it comes to relating with other people, they can be open to persuasion and become impulsive as well.
Notably, women form the majority of the victims of romance scams. Older, divorced, or widowed women tend to be a target for these scams because scammers know that they are more likely to be insecure about dating and emotionally vulnerable.
c. Residents of developed countries
It’s worth noting that romance scams affect people from all over the world, but residents of developed countries tend to be a target for most scammers. This is because the fraudsters believe that residents of developed nations are more likely to have more money to spare.
d. Abuse survivors
A survivor of an abusive relationship is highly likely to become a romance scam victim. This can be attributed to the fact that they were accustomed to living in denial, excusing the behavior, and even blocking memories of it. Similarly, they will probably find excuses or ignore the warning signs of a romance scam.
e. People that suffered a crisis recently
People who have been through an adverse life event within the last two years are more likely to become victims of fraud. Individuals that have recently undergone a medical crisis, lost a loved one, gone through a divorce, or lost a job are more vulnerable to the tactics of an online fraudster.
f. Victims of previous scams
We tend to believe that once you’ve been scammed, you become extra cautious. However, people that have been victimized before tend to show interest in other scams. That’s why scammers often prey on people that have been victims of fraud before.
Dangers of Romance Scams
i. Physical danger
Some victims have been lured out of their home countries to meet their “new found love,” only to encounter life-threatening challenges. You might end up being imprisoned in a foreign land if you unknowingly engage in illegal activities or being kidnapped and held for ransom.
ii. Mental health issues
For romance scam victims, what hurts the most is the realization that the person they were in love with did not really exist. Many fall into depression because they lack support or understanding from their family and friends. Notably, the person goes into denial, suffers severe mental illness, and may even attempt suicide.
Romance scammers often demand money from their victims and threaten to expose their nude photos and videos if they failed. Some even ask their victims to become their accomplices in exchange for a promise to keep the pictures private. They might still expose them even after meeting your end of the bargain, though.
How to Avoid Losing Money to a Non-Existent “Sweetheart”
- Don’t send money
As promising as the romantic relationship seems, never send money or gifts to the other person before you meet them face-to-face. Note that if you send cash or put money in a cash-reload card or gift to an online lover, you may never get it back. So, if someone you’ve met online asks for money, consider cutting all manners of communication with him or her because they are about to scam you.
- Seek advice
Listen to your family and friends, especially if they are raising concerns about your recent love interest. Notably, scammers tend to create a sense of false urgency that will make you act without thinking. So, when your online lover asks for money to take care of an emergency, slow down and talk to someone you trust. They might just help you see the other side of the scammer that you might not have paid attention to.
- Do a job type search
Consider searching for scams associated with the person’s job type. For instance, you could search for “army scammer” or “oil rig scammer” to see if other people’s stories match yours. Additionally, ask them questions and watch out for inconsistencies in their answers.
- Do an image search
Did you know that romance scammers can steal the identity of a real person, or lift pictures and create an attractive profile? It is safe to do a reverse search of their profile picture using Google’s search engine’s “search by picture” option. If their details don’t match, or if the photo is associated with someone else, that’s a red flag.
- Never send intimate photos
Sending intimate photos or videos to someone you’ve met online may be a bad idea. A scammer can use that to blackmail you into sending them money or doing them other favors.
What to Do If You Have Already Paid
- Try to stop the transfer
If you paid using a gift card, call the company that issued the card immediately. Inform the service provider that you have paid a scammer and ask them if they can refund the money. If you wired money through your bank, call your bank right away and ask if they can reverse or stop the transaction.
- Report your experience
Reporting the experience is the best way to prevent the romance scammer from defrauding more unsuspecting targets. Begin by informing the administrator of the dating site about the scam so that they can warn more people to stay alert and maybe, they can deactivate the scammer’s profile as well. You can also file a complaint with a government agency that investigates online fraud, files lawsuits on behalf of the victims, and helps them recover part, if not all, of their lost money and sensitive information.
The existence of romance scams should not discourage you from pursuing an online relationship. You can still join dating sites but you have to be careful with whom you communicate and build a relationship. Knowing how to detect scams is an excellent way to stay safe from suspicious individuals. And with the above insights, it will be much easier to differentiate a fake profile from a real one.