AARP Eye Center
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.
AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal
Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP The Magazine.
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.