AARP Eye Center
If you’re looking for love online, make sure to keep your wallet — if not your heart — under lock and key. Fraud cases are climbing as the number of dating sites and apps — and users — grow. Today there are an estimated 25,000 romance scammers online worldwide, according to one cybersecurity expert. Between 5 percent and 25 percent of online daters could be fakes or scammers, says another.
For example, last December the FBI busted a Chicago-based crime ring that victimized at least 11 people through online romance scams. The alleged cybercrooks met victims through websites and apps, including Match.com, Facebook and Instagram, according to prosecutors. What these scams had in common were budding relationships that started and flourished electronically via dating websites, emails, texts and phone calls, the complaint said. “Eventually, the conspirators that posed as the victims’ online love interests requested financial assistance for various purposes,” the complaint said.
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For example, one victim in the case had just lost a spouse and “out of loneliness” accepted a Facebook friend request from a man who went by the name Frank, according to the complaint. The two engaged in a romantic relationship communicating online via Facebook, Google Hangout and email. Assured by “Frank” they would have a future together, the victim forked over about $28,000, ostensibly to help him pay a son’s medical bills, the complaint said. The grieving spouse also took out a personal loan, made wire transfers to multiple individuals and before it was over had lost thousands more, the complaint said.
Another one of the unnamed victims got roped in after lamenting on Facebook about “relationship difficulties.” A man posing as Ed Gunn responded, introducing the victim to a resident of Nigeria who called himself Suave Rochet. (The culprits ranged in age from 20 to 55 years old and are Nigerian by birth or heritage.) The victim texted Rochet two or three times a day, apparently falling hard. The Nigerian reported coming into a five-figure inheritance and, in increments, transferred more than $33,000 into the victim’s bank account. The victim then wired the money to another person on Rochet’s behalf, becoming “an unwitting money mule in this scheme,” the complaint said.
Today the defendants are behind bars and awaiting trial, but authorities don’t expect romance fraud to fade away anytime soon.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this situation,” says Steve D’Antuono, a 23-year FBI veteran who is chief of its Financial Crime Section in Washington.
“We’ve had chatrooms since the dawn of AOL, back when I was a kid,” D’Antuono says, “and criminals will use whatever technology and tools that they possibly can to take [victims’] money.”
Speaking not about the Chicago case, but generally about romance fraud, D’Antuono says victims include men and women, straights and gays, and people of all ages, races and walks of life.
Nobody can pinpoint how many romance scams occur in the U.S., in part because many cases are believed to go unreported. But available data show the number is climbing. The Federal Trade Commission, a consumer protection agency, received 16,902 reports of romance scams in 2017. That’s up from 11,242 in 2016 and 8,526 in 2015. Reports to the FTC for the first nine months on 2018, when annualized, were on track to surpass those from the year before.
How to avoid being fleeced? “The best advice is don’t give money to someone you’ve never met in person,” D’Antuono says. Others agree.