FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER
En español | Adults of all ages are going online in hopes of finding love and companionship. Three in 10 U.S. adults have used a dating website or app, including 1 in 5 Americans ages 50 to 64, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. But seeking romantic bliss online can have a major downside: Cyberspace is full of scammers eager to take advantage of lonely hearts.
The con works something like this: You post a dating profile and up pops a promising match — good-looking, smart, funny and personable. 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, typically via gift cards, prepaid debit cards or a wire transfer.
He or she will promise to pay it back, but that will never happen. Instead, the scammer will keep asking for more until you finally realize you’ve been had.
Phony suitors also seek marks on social media, reaching out to people they spot on Facebook or Instagram, and they are increasingly active. The number of complaints about romance scams fielded by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) leaped from 11,235 in 2016 to 52,593 in 2020, and reported losses topped $300 million, a nearly fourfold increase over the same period.
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. In September 2021, the FBI reported a rising trend of sham sweethearts enticing their targets to make fraudulent cryptocurrency investments.
The older the target, the heavier the financial toll, according to the FTC — the median individual loss from a romance scam for people 70 and over was $9,475, compared to $2,500 across all age groups.
Romance scammers are smooth operators and can take their time to set their trap. Watch out for these red flags if you’re looking for love and companionship online.
- Your new romantic interest sends you a picture that looks more like a model from a fashion magazine than an ordinary snapshot.
- The person quickly wants to leave the dating website and communicate with you through email or instant messaging.
- He or she lavishes you with attention. Swindlers often inundate prospective marks with texts, emails and phone calls to draw them in.
- He or she repeatedly promises to meet you in person but always seems to come up with an excuse to cancel.
- Do take it slowly. Ask your potential partner a lot of questions, and watch for inconsistencies that might reveal an impostor.
- Do check the photo, using Google’s “search by image” feature. If the same picture shows up elsewhere with a different name attached to it, that’s a sign a scammer may have stolen it.
- Do be wary of flirtatious and overly complimentary emails. Paste the text into a search engine and see whether the same words show up on websites devoted to exposing romance scams.
- Do cut off contact immediately if you begin to suspect that the individual may be a swindler.
- Do notify the dating site or the maker of the dating app on which you met the scammer.
- Don’t feel a false sense of safety because you’re the one who made first contact. Scammers flood dating websites with fake profiles and wait for victims to come to them.
- Don’t reveal too much personal information in a dating profile or to someone you’ve chatted with only online. Scammers can exploit details like your last name or where you work to manipulate you or to commit identity theft.
- Don’t ever give an online acquaintance intimate photos that could later be used for extortion.
- Don't send cash or gift cards to someone you've chatted with only online or put money on a reloadable debit card for the person — you’ll never get it back.
Updated September 21, 2021
About the Fraud Watch Network
Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.
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