Adults of all ages are going online in hopes of finding love and companionship. But seeking romantic bliss online can have a major downside: Cyberspace is full of scammers eager to take advantage of lonely hearts, and their ranks are growing. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received some 56,000 complaints about romance scams in 2021, more than triple the 2017 total, and reported monetary losses from such cons jumped sixfold over the same period, to $547 million.
The con typically works something like this: You post a dating profile and up pops a promising match — good-looking, smart, funny and personable. Supposed suitors might also reach out on social media; more than a third of people who lost money to a romance scam in 2021 reported that it started on Facebook or Instagram, according to the FTC. They’ll use pictures of an attractive person, of course; check out Social Catfish’s list of the top 100 photos used for catfishing (using a fake identity to lure someone into a romantic relationship) in 2022.
This potential mate claims to live in another part of the country or to be abroad for business or a military deployment. But he or she seems smitten and eager to get to know you better, and suggests you move your relationship to a private channel like email or a chat app.
Over weeks or months, you feel yourself growing closer. You make plans to meet in person, but for your new love something always comes up. Then you get an urgent request. There’s an emergency (a medical problem, perhaps, or a business crisis) and your online companion needs you to send money fast, usually via gift cards, prepaid debit cards, cryptocurrency, or a bank or wire transfer.
They'll promise to pay it back, but that will never happen. Instead, they will keep asking for more until you realize it's a scam and cut them off.
Romance scams can overlap with or evolve into other forms of fraud. For example, international criminal gangs use dating sites to recruit unwitting “money mules” to launder ill-gotten funds through their bank accounts or other means. And con artists are increasingly luring supposed sweethearts into fraudulent cryptocurrency investments.
The older the target, the heavier the financial toll. The median individual loss from a romance scam for people 70 and over was $9,000 in 2021, according to the FTC, compared to $2,400 across all age groups.