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Romance Scammers Are Wooing Victims Into Bogus Crypto Schemes

Online criminals break hearts and steal savings with promises of risk-free investments


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Getty Images/AARP

Are you hoping for true love? And more money than you ever imagined?

Who isn’t?

That’s why an unconscionable cadre of criminals dangle these twin temptations — the promise of romance and vast wealth — in what can be an emotionally and financially devastating double-barreled scam. The deception starts out as a romance scam and transforms into a cryptocurrency investment fraud in which victims have lost millions of dollars.

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Essentially, the criminal seduces the victim online then gets him or her to make bogus investments in crypto. It’s been a growing problem for about three years, says Erin West, a deputy district attorney in San Jose, California, who focuses on battling cryptocurrency crime.

Victims often don’t realize there’s no money in their digital currency accounts until it’s too late, says Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network, and by then the “criminal has long moved on to another victim.”

West, who has seen the trail of destruction that crypto-romance scammers leave in their wake, notes that victims not only have to grapple with the financial loss but also the heartbreaking betrayal by a “person they’ve grown to love and trust.”

Video: Beware of Romance Scams

The scope of the problem

Since scams are notoriously underreported, it’s hard to pinpoint the precise number of victims. But nearly 70,000 people reported a romance scam to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2022, with $1.3 billion in reported losses — an average of $4,400 per person. Crypto losses accounted for more than 60 percent of losses in 2022, the most recent year for which data is available.

Cryptocurrency fraud also has taken a quantum leap in recent years.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

In 2022, the FBI reported $2.5 billion were reported lost in crypto-investment schemes, which include romance and other impostor scams such as celebrity-impersonation and employment scams. Recently, in November 2023, the U.S. Justice Department and Secret Service were able to seize $9 million worth of a cryptocurrency called Tether from one such scheme. The more than 70 victims, who were targeted through romance schemes and other approaches, believed they were investing with trusted firms and currency exchanges.

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How the scam typically works

For the victims, the scam usually unfolds like this:

  1. Out-of-the-blue interest in you. First the criminals prowl the web for victims and make contact through dating apps or direct messages on platforms including Facebook and LinkedIn. Some criminals pretend they are young and attractive and use fake profile photos to support that charade.
  2. Errant text messages. Alternatively, scammers may attempt to start a relationship by appearing to have sent you a text by mistake. These texts seem mundane, simply arranging lunch with a friend or confirming an important appointment but when you reply telling them they have the wrong number, they engage you in conversation and attempt to strike up a romance.
  3. Romantic attention. Once communication has started, they may chat with their targets for three or four hours a day to draw them in, starting the day with a wake-up message, “Good morning, sweetheart,” and going from there. This frequent messaging can last a month or much longer.
  4. “Investment” talk. As the digital “relationship” deepens, perpetrators persuade victims to make what is purportedly an investment in cryptocurrency. Photos of luxury cars and vacations are shared to give the illusion of new wealth and spur the victim to act. In some cases, the scammer will feign ignorance of crypto but offer to do the victim a favor. They may purport that their uncle is a skilled investor and can help them out. A sense of urgency may develop, where the victim may be told they will lose a big opportunity. Scammers want you to act without thinking. 
  5. Collect the money. Some instruct victims to go to a crypto ATM to buy digital currency and send it to them. Or they might send victims a link to purchase crypto that actually “puts [the money] in the perpetrator’s digital wallet,” AARP’s Nofziger says.  
  6. Demonstrate fake gains. If the victims agree to buy crypto, the still seemingly adoring criminals direct them to fabricated websites that appear to show that the investment is paying off big-time.
  7. Ask for more money. Sometimes victims are able to make small withdrawals from their accounts at first, but if they try to cash out, they are told they must pay a 25 percent “tax.”

The need to come up with the so-called tax can prompt victims to mortgage their house, deplete 401(k)s, raid their kids’ college funds or borrow from relatives, says West, who calls the crime “hideous.”

“It is a long con that’s really laser-focused on taking every penny from the victim,” she adds. “That’s why we’re literally seeing suicides. We are seeing people checking themselves into psychiatric facilities.”

How to protect yourself from this scam

  • Do a reverse image search. If someone sends you photos, do a reverse image search to verify they are who they say they are. AARP suggests using these tools to search.
  • Beware of people you meet online, particularly if they quickly want to leave the dating website and communicate with you through email, texts or instant messaging. (AARP’s Fraud Resource Center offers more information on avoiding romance scams.)
  • Keep personal information private. Banking information, Social Security number, copies of IDs (including passport) or other sensitive information shouldn’t be shared with anyone online.
  • Talk to friends or family about new love interests. They can serve as a valuable check on our judgment we have when we are lost in the first flush of romantic love.
  • Research investment opportunities thoroughly. If you work with someone at your bank or brokerage, talk to them about money you are investing. As professionals who handle markets and exchanges every day, they can look into the validity of claims made to you by someone online. The FTC also has a good site about investing.    

What to do if you've experienced a crypto-romance scam

  • ​Contact law enforcement. Documenting the scam with the police may be of value if there is some means of recouping your loss.
  • File reports with the federal government. The FTC and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center use fraud reports to target their investigations; the more information they have, the better they can identify patterns, link cases and ultimately catch the criminals. Contact the FTC at reportfraud.ftc.gov and the FBI at IC3.gov.  
  • Find support. FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) Foundation and Cybercrime Support Network have free 10-week counselor-led support groups for victims of romance scams.

The AARP Fraud Watch Network also offers support sessions for scam victims. This online program (aarp.org/VictimSupport) provides a safe place for victims and their families to address the emotional impact of fraud.​ 

More resources

  • To learn more about crypto, check out the FTC’s guidance at ftc.gov/cryptocurrency.
  • F​INRA has information on its site to teach investors how investing works along with a database to check the credentials of anyone you plan to have handle your money.

To hear about a woman who joins a dating app to make connections but encounters a crypto-romance scam, listen to this episode of AARP’s The Perfect Scam.

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.