Online Romance Fraud Devastates Financially and Emotionally

It’s February and we all tend to think of matters of the heart just a little more.  Whether via a dating app or social media, meeting new friends and love interests online is more common than ever. But, so is online romance fraud, through which criminals devastate tens of thousands of victims and their families every year, both financially and emotionally.

Adults of all ages are going online in hopes of finding love and companionship. But seeking romantic bliss online can have a major downside: Cyberspace is full of scammers eager to take advantage of lonely hearts, and their ranks are growing. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received some 56,000 complaints about romance scams in 2021, more than triple the 2017 total, and reported monetary losses from such cons jumped sixfold over the same period, to $547 million.

The con typically works something like this: You post a dating profile and up pops a promising match — good-looking, smart, funny and personable. Supposed suitors might also reach out on social media; more than a third of people who lost money to a romance scam in 2021 reported that it started on Facebook or Instagram, according to the FTC. They’ll use pictures of an attractive person, of course; check out Social Catfish’s list of the top 100 photos used for catfishing (using a fake identity to lure someone into a romantic relationship) in 2022.

This potential mate claims to live in another part of the country or to be abroad for business or a military deployment. But he or she seems smitten and eager to get to know you better, and suggests you move your relationship to a private channel like email or a chat app.

Over weeks or months, you feel yourself growing closer. You make plans to meet in person, but for your new love something always comes up. Then you get an urgent request. There’s an emergency (a medical problem, perhaps, or a business crisis) and your online companion needs you to send money fast, usually via gift cards, prepaid debit cards, cryptocurrency, or a bank or wire transfer.

They'll promise to pay it back, but that will never happen. Instead, they will keep asking for more until you realize it's a scam and cut them off.

Romance scams can overlap with or evolve into other forms of fraud. For example, international criminal gangs use dating sites to recruit unwitting “money mules” to launder ill-gotten funds through their bank accounts or other means. And con artists are increasingly luring supposed sweethearts into fraudulent cryptocurrency investments.

The older the target, the heavier the financial toll. The median individual loss from a romance scam for people 70 and over was $9,000 in 2021, according to the FTC, compared to $2,400 across all age groups.

Warning Signs

  • Your new romantic interest sends you a picture that looks more like a model from a fashion magazine than an ordinary snapshot.
  • The person quickly wants to leave the dating website and communicate with you through email or instant messaging.
  • They lavish you with attention. Swindlers often inundate prospective marks with texts, emails and phone calls to draw them in.
  • They repeatedly promise to meet in person but always come up with an excuse to cancel.
  • They make a sudden request for money to deal with an emergency or make a sure-fire investment.

How to protect yourself from this scam

  • Take it slowly. Ask your potential partner a lot of questions and watch for inconsistencies that might reveal an impostor. 
  • Talk to family and friends about a new love interest and pay attention if they have concerns.
  • Check an online suitor's profile photo using Google’s image search. If the same picture shows up elsewhere with a different name attached to it, that’s a sign a scammer may have stolen it.
  • Be wary of flirtatious and overly complimentary emails. Paste the text into a search engine and see whether the same words show up on websites devoted to exposing romance scams.
  • Cut off contact immediately if you begin to suspect that the individual may be a swindler.
  • Notify the dating site or the maker of the dating app on which you met the scammer.
  • Be wary even if you’re the one who made first contact. Scammers flood dating websites with fake profiles and wait for victims to come to them.
  • Limit the amount of personal information you provide in a dating profile or to someone you’ve chatted with only online. Scammers can exploit details like your last name or where you work to manipulate you or to commit identity theft.
  • Never share intimate photos to an online acquaintance. They could end up being used for sextortion.
  • Don't send cash, cryptocurrency or gift cards or put money on a reloadable debit card for someone you've only interacted with online — you’ll never get it back.

More Resources

  • Report a suspected online romance scam to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center and the FTC.
  • The U.S. Army has a detailed fact sheet on spotting romance scammers posing as American soldiers posted abroad.

(Partially reprinted from aarp.org/money/scams-fraud)

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