The season of holiday cheer is also the peak time for scammers offering bogus romance. Thousands of Americans looking for a new love to help usher in the new year will instead be beguiled by online con artists who use fake identities and empty promises to talk the lovestruck out of their savings — or worse.
More Californians report being victimized by these frauds than any other state’s residents, a testament to the state’s size if not necessarily its collective loneliness. And while the top targets in 2020 were people 40 to 69 years old, the Federal Trade Commission said in February, the number of reported victims rose in every age group.
Consumers reported more than 30,000 of these scams to the FTC in 2020, three times as many as in 2016, with losses quadrupling to $304 million. The median loss was $2,500.
Are we growing more gullible? Who knows? What we do know is that the pandemic has been a blessing to scammers, helping them woo their marks from a distance and accelerating the growth in these crimes.
Thankfully, there are plenty of tips available from the FTC and other privacy-minded organizations about how to recognize and protect yourself from scammers in suitors’ clothing.
The hunting grounds
Romance scammers prowl around any territory where people search for love or just try to connect with strangers. That includes dating services and hookup sites, but also social media networks, where about half the scams in recent years have originated.
A key part of the con is the scammer’s ability to pretend to be someone he or she isn’t. Remember Peter Steiner’s New Yorker cartoon showing a canine at a PC saying, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”? That’s the central problem here.
Some ventures, such as the matchmaking site EHarmony, attempt to head off problems by preventing people from trolling the site for victims. They require users to fill out extensive profiles, then use that information to decide who can connect with whom on the site. Still, even on sites and social networks that demand the use of real names, such as Facebook, fraudsters find ways to set up bogus accounts by copying other people’s images and creating fake back stories.
Although their methods vary, all romance scammers start by trying to win your trust, often through flattery and storytelling.
“They’re very persuasive. They’re very believable,” said Rhonda Perkins, an attorney in the FTC’s division of marketing practices. In particular, she said, scammers excel at finding ways to bond with their victims through shared experiences or interests.
“If you’re religious, they’re religious. If you love pets, they love pets. If you’ve just been through a devastating loss, they’ve just been through a devastating loss. They’re really good at building those connections,” Perkins said. “They’re perceptive. They listen. Based on the things you’re talking about, they pick up on those cues. They use that to echo back to consumers similar interests.”
Once the hook is set, the scammers then set about parting you from your money.
Chelsea King at romancescams.org described it this way: “The scams start with small requests to test the water. It could be anything from a paycheck that didn’t come to a Social Security check that was lost in the mail. The scammer will ask to borrow money from a victim with the promise of paying it back. If the victim agrees, the scammers know they have the green light to proceed.”
The asks may seem logical enough — your suitor says she needs money to pay the dating app’s membership fees and stay in touch, or he wants to buy a plane ticket to come see you. Or the rationale might be something extraordinary and heart-rending — a health emergency, say, or a family tragedy.
Scammers typically ask for gift cards or non-bank wire transfers (think Western Union). No matter what the amount or the type of payment requested, the FTC advises: “Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person — even if they send you money first.”
A more insidious scam seeks to dupe a person into laundering money. According to the FBI, the scammer will ask the person he or she is cozying up to online to help them with a task that involves accepting some funds, then transferring them to a third person. What the “money mule” in the middle doesn’t realize is that the funds are the proceeds of a crime, and the transfer is designed to stop the cops from tracing it back to its source. Worse, if the scheme is uncovered, the money mule can be prosecuted even if he or she had no idea that a crime was being committed.
The Crime Junkie podcast highlighted one other wrinkle this year. Multiple women across the country reported having gone to a bar to meet a man they’d recently connected with online, only to be stood up after being instructed to order two shots of a distinctive liquor — and then having another strange man swoop in and try to get them to leave with him. Where this would have gone is anybody’s guess, but an FBI agent interviewed on the podcast suggested the women could have been targeted for human trafficking.
Scammers often stick to a formula that has worked in the past. Here are some of the signature elements of the bogus courtship ritual, according to the FTC, EHarmony, the people search company SocialCatfish.com and the cybersecurity company Norton.
Their profiles promise an exceptional companion, but are general enough to appeal to just about anybody. That’s by design on matchmaking sites — the scammers are trying to match with as many potential victims as possible.
They put the whirlwind in the romance. Warned SocialCatfish.com: “Be careful if someone seems to be falling for you and they write and say all of these loving things about you after a brief amount of time,” particularly if they haven’t even talked to you yet.
They say their job keeps them distant — really distant. Serving in the military is a common claim. Look out for supposed service members who ask for help affording things that the military provides, such as medical care.
They may agree to meet you in person, but they never actually do. Perkins said the cases she’s handled at the FTC have a common thread: The perpetrators always have reasons why they can’t meet you in person, but they nevertheless need your money.
They also may find reasons not to do video chats, and their online profiles have few pictures.
They try to shift your conversations off the site where you met. Scammers do this to avoid the site’s safety features.
They tell stories that aren’t consistent and give vague answers when asked specific questions. Meanwhile, their questions seem too personal or inappropriate.
They claim to be recently widowed.
And when they ask for money, which they inevitably do, they have a specific payment method in mind — one that can’t be reversed. If your new “soul mate” overseas tells you that the only way to help them is through Western Union, Perkins said, “that’s a scam.”
How to protect yourself
Avoid the temptation to rush giddily into an intense new relationship. Scammers know that when you quickly fall head over heels, your money can spill out. “We just can’t say it enough: Do not send money transfers or gift card numbers to someone you met through an online dating site or social media,” Perkins said.
Before a relationship heats up, try to verify that your online paramour is who he or she claims to be. There are a host of sites that can gather the public records, social media posts and other published data associated with a name or an address, albeit for a fee. You can also run the person’s profile picture(s) through a reverse image search, such as the ones from Google or TinEye.com.
While you’re at it, run some of the more flowery messages he or she sent you through Google. Pictures copied from someone else’s profile and recycled scripts are telltale signs of a scammer. Do the same thing with your new beau’s professed occupation, to see how many times people have been bilked by online suitors claiming to be such a person. Especially if your beau claims to work on an offshore oil rig.
Insist on a video chat. At the very least, you’ll find out if the person you’ve been chatting with matches his or her profile picture.
Reveal no sensitive personal or financial information.
Run your thoughts by people you trust to get their take on your suitor’s legitimacy. Said Perkins: “We found that when people talk to someone they trust and get that gut check … it helps them avoid losing money.” If your friends and family say that they’re concerned and that the whole setup sounds fishy, listen to them.
And if you conclude that you’ve been scammed, Perkins said, contact the company that issued the gift card or money transfer and try to cancel the transaction, even though the chances of getting a refund are low. Also, report the person to the FTC, the FBI and the site where you met the dreamboat who turned out to be a nightmare.