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Criminals Collect Millions in Romance Scams

Never send money to a virtual love interest you haven't met in person, experts caution

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When an online crush turns out to be a con artist, it's not only a crime against Cupid—a real man or woman suffers, and the true cost can add up to more than a broken heart.

Romance scams, and the millions of dollars lost to them, have jumped dramatically in recent years, even as experts say many cases still go unreported because victims are embarrassed or ashamed. Between 2015 and 2019, there were 84,119 romance-scam complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). That's roughly equal to the population of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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spinner image Infographic detailing the total reports of romance scams and the total losses from romance scams

The FTC, a consumer-protection agency, says more than $342 million was lost to romance scams between 2015 and 2018, according to spokesman Jay Mayfield. That's more than a dollar for every man, woman and child in the U.S.

Online daters of all ages have fallen victim to the cruel crooks who break hearts and empty bank accounts. But an FTC review of 2018 cases found that while the overall median loss resulting from a romance scam was $2,600, the median jumped to $10,000 when the victim was age 70 or older.

To shed light on why people succumb, a social psychologist, a cybercrimes expert and a Secret Service agent share insights into romance scammers and offer advice on how to protect yourself from these heartless offenders.

The social psychologist

“A lot of people are just very desperate for an emotional or intimate connection with another person. And they may not have had a lot of success with that in real life, and so any time they start to see that connection develop, they might jump on it because they don’t know when or if that opportunity is going to come back,” says Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist specializing in sexuality and relationships at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute. “When people start to feel some degree of intimacy or connection, sometimes they do irrational things in the pursuit of love.”

What makes romance fraud devastating from an emotional standpoint, he says, is that “it plays on very deep feelings of insecurity and anxiety and loss that people may have experienced in their lives.”

Those looking for love through dating apps or social media tend to have a deep need for connections with others, Lehmiller says. But if their online quest doesn’t yield much success, they could become “very vulnerable” to virtual romance fraudsters who try to gain their trust in pursuit of their cash.

“When people start to feel that connection to someone else, especially if they have these little twangs of passion that go along with it, it can lead people to act in irrational ways where they might ignore warning flags,” explains Lehmiller.

His advice? Verify who you’re dealing with online and talk to friends about a potential love interest.

The cybercrimes expert

Romance fraudsters are adept at “social engineering” and deploy the “art of persuasion” to influence people to act in ways that may not be in their interest, says Aunshul Rege, an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University, who has researched online dating scams. That online love interest who seems charming could in reality be a ruthless criminal who lives overseas and is adept at pulling a victim's strings while eventually taking advantage of a human tendency to help a person in need. Here's how an online romance scam typically unfolds, according to Rege:

Fraudsters hide behind fake online accounts, fictitious or pilfered profiles and stolen photos. Many lurk on popular dating sites, using stolen credit cards to pay for premium services. Some even create phony dating sites to lure potential victims. All are trolling for their next mark.

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Once a scammer gets their hooks into a target, they might spend weeks or even months “grooming” victims to gain trust and affection. In the early stages of a romance scam, the conversation and correspondence can range from friendly and flirty to heavy and romantic, but there's generally no urgent request for money.

Next, after a firm bond has been established, the fraudster concocts a phony-but-plausible financial need: they want to meet the victim in person but can't afford a plane ticket; they have a fantastic business opportunity but need a short-term loan; or they've been in an accident but can't afford the hospital bill. Inevitably, more requests for money follow. “It's going to be one thing after another after another,” says Rege, as crooks “nickel and dime you” for all you're worth.

A romance scam eventually starts to fall apart once victims realize they've been scammed or they run out of money. And even when the flow of cash gets cut off, the fraudsters don't necessarily disappear. They may resort to “sextortion” to squeeze more cash from a victim by threatening, say, to post compromising photos or videos on a porn site.

Online daters are in search of a combination of “love, compassion, kindness, company,” says Rege, and older people who are divorcing, already divorced or widowed may be especially vulnerable to scams. As people age, and see friends grow ill and die, they may feel fear or depression and start thinking: “I want to live my life to the fullest; I don't want to be alone,” she says.

Rege's advice? Be patient. Turn off your device and meet the object of your budding affection in person in a public place for coffee or dinner. (Fraudsters are known to lie about their unavailability by pretending they are deployed overseas with the military or at work on an oil rig.)

If you have grown children, talk to them about your search for love in cyberspace so they may step in, if warranted, before damage is done. And don't rely solely on online “friends” for social connections. Join a book club, attend movie nights or sign up for fitness classes to meet people in real life.

The Secret Service agent

Chris McMahon, a special agent with the Secret Service, encounters romance fraud on a daily basis. It's part of his job. He has met dozens of romance-scam victims and probed hundreds of such cases during investigations of large-scale, transnational crime groups.

One victim, in particular, stands out. The woman lost more than $1.5 million in a scam arising in Africa. (Many romance scams originate overseas.) Over the course of a year or so, she sent mostly wire transfers to a man she never once met in person because she “very, very much believed that the relationship was real based on the conversations and felt she was obligated to offer the assistance."

The requests for cash started small. At first, the perpetrator asked for money so he could travel to visit her in the U.S. Then, he needed more to resolve passport issues, then still more for taxes.

Next, a coconspirator claimed her love interest had been in a car accident and needed money for medical bills. Then, the man supposedly was being sued because of the crash, necessitating more cash.

It spiraled “out of control really quickly,” says McMahon. The victim “remortgaged her house twice, cashed out her 401(k), took out personal loans, borrowed money from friends. She took cash advances against her credit cards. She sold stuff."

Today, the romance-scam victim is saddled with astronomical monthly expenses — “tens of thousands of dollars to repay this debt.” She struck him as a hardworking, down-to-earth woman looking for a solid relationship. “It's horrible,” he says.

Fake online romances can proceed “fairly quickly” but usually follow a familiar pattern: profess love early, build trust, then ask for cash. “They're targeting vulnerable people — people they don't have face-to-face contact with,” McMahon says. Some victims are lonely, have had bad relationships in the past or suffered trauma. Some state in online profiles that they are widowed, new to dating or never married.

"Other times it just becomes a numbers game” with scammers using written scripts as they reach out to multiple targets — a dozen or so at a time — hoping for pay dirt. Some people don't take the bait, becoming suspicious when a perpetrator refuses to meet in person or speak on video chat. Yet others believe the fraudsters when they say, “I can't wait to hold you in my arms” or “We'll be married soon.”

McMahon’s advice? “Number 1, never send money.” Next, do some sleuthing: Google the person’s name and phone number to check for red flags.

If you think you're being scammed, keep notes and report your suspicions to the online platform where you met, and to local police, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center or the closest Secret Service office.

Here are the FTC's tips on playing it safe when online dating

  • Never send money or gifts to a sweetheart you haven’t met in person.
  • Talk to someone you trust about a new love interest. In the excitement about what feels like a budding relationship, people can be blinded to things that don’t add up. Pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
  • Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers. Try an online reverse-image search of profile pictures. If the images are associated with another person’s name, or details don’t match up, it’s a scam.

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