Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.
While online romance scams have been with us for many years, they have increased dramatically during the pandemic. According to the Federal Trade Commission, victims of romance scams lost $547 million in 2021, which was a dramatic increase from the $304 million lost in 2020. The unfortunate fact is that the true figure is probably even worse because many victims hesitate to report this scam.
Romance scams generally follow a familiar pattern, with the crooks establishing relationships with people — generally women — through legitimate dating websites and social media using fake names, locations, and images. The scammers often pose as American business people or servicepeople serving abroad. In many cases, they steal the identity and photo of a real person in the military; just ask U.S. Navy officer Mike Sency, who has had his identity used by scammers dozens of times. After building trust with their victims, the con artist asks for money to help them through some sort of fake emergency.
Last year federal prosecutors charged nine people from Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States with operating romance scams. A number of these criminals posed as “Daniel Moore,” who claimed to be from Michigan, but was working on an oil rig in Dubai. According to prosecutors, this ring took in more than $2.5 million from their victims over the last four years. According to U.S. Attorney Lisa Johnston, “Crimes involving romance scams and other online scams are increasing at an alarming rate. This case is a reminder that users of email, texts and social media should be aware of such scams and exercise extreme caution.”
While anyone can be the victim of a romance scam, the elderly, women, and people who have been widowed are particular vulnerable, according to the FBI. Since 2019 approximately half of the reported instances of romance scams have started on social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram, rather than on dating sites or dating apps, according to the FTC. One particularly scary statistic is that people over 70 years old who are victimized in a romance scam lose, on average, about $10,000, as contrasted to $2,800 for younger victims.
Two interesting new developments involve money mules and cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. In the cryptocurrency romance scam, the crook convinces the victim to leave the dating site and use a texting app such as WhatsApp. They then tell you about a family member who has made a lot of money investing in cryptocurrencies and lure the victim into putting money into a phony cryptocurrency investment, where the funds are quickly stolen by the scammer.
In the second scam, the scammer actually sends the victim money under a variety of pretenses and then asks the victim to wire the money back to them. In this case, the victim unwittingly becomes a criminal because they are actually participating in money laundering. This has been seen a lot in the past year in relation to the massive filing of phony claims for unemployment compensation. The criminals will have the money sent to the victim and then have them send the money to the scammer overseas, often in Nigeria. Recently four people were arrested in Maryland and New Jersey and charged with laundering money through romance scam victims.
There are various red flags to help you identify romance scams. The most important thing to remember is to always be skeptical of anyone who quickly falls in love with you online without ever meeting you, and then early into the relationship asks you to send money to assist them with a wide range of phony emergencies.
Here are a few other things to look for to help identify an online romance scam.
- Often their profile picture is stolen from a modeling website on the Internet. If the picture looks too professional and the person looks too much like a model, you should be wary. You also can check on the legitimacy of photographs by seeing if they have been used elsewhere by doing a reverse image search using Google or tineye.com.
- Particular phrases, such as “Remember the distance or color does not matter, but love matters a lot in life,” turn up in many romance scam emails.
- Be on the lookout for bad spelling and grammar as many of the romance scammers claim to be Americans, but are actually foreigners lying about where and who they are.
- Be particularly wary of online relationships with people in the military because while many real military personnel do use social media and dating websites, they are a favorite disguise for scammers.
- Be skeptical when your new romantic partner is in a rush to get off of the dating site to communicate in another fashion.
- There is no legitimate reason for someone to have money wired to you merely to wire to someone else. This is always a scam.
- As for the cryptocurrency scam, the rules still apply that you should never invest in anything you do not fully understand.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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