Sarah didn’t see it coming.
A single mom in her late 40s, “Sarah” was especially lonely after her divorce (name changed to protect her identity). Her teenager had convinced her to join a dating site, so she created a profile on a popular app. After a handful of dates fell flat, she found Scott (name also changed). He was charismatic, kind. “We had an instant connection,” according to Sarah.
They spent hours on the phone sharing their deepest secrets and even started imagining a future together. But after about three months, Scott fell on hard times. At first, he needed to borrow $400 to pay for airfare to visit a dying relative, which he paid back immediately. Over the next few months, the numbers grew to $1,000 for rent and $3,000 for a business venture.
Repayments for those loans never came, and before long, Sarah had loaned her new love over $8,500. When she pressed him for the money, Scott ghosted Sarah online, moved out of town, and she never saw him again. She didn’t share her story with many people. She didn’t report it. She was too embarrassed and humiliated and even became depressed following what she calls “the Scott scam.” Painfully, she lost her trust in others.
Sarah isn’t alone. In the U.S. alone, about 70,000 people reported a romance scam in 2022, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Reported losses hit $1.3 billion with a median loss of $4,400. And with such statistics, those figures reflect only what was reported. How many other “Sarahs” in the U.S. got scammed and never reported it? How many worldwide?
That’s the pain of online dating and romance scams. Financial and emotional pain gets compounded by feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. After all, the victims were looking for love and companionship.
And that’s what scammers count on. Yet that shouldn’t stop you from a romance that springs online. With a strong heart and sharp eye, you can spot a scam and put an end to it before any damage gets done.
How do online dating and romance scams get started?
Dating and romance scams can start several ways. They might begin on dating apps and sites, just like in Sarah’s case. Yet they can happen elsewhere and even pop out of the blue too. Scammers will prowl around on social media, texts, and online games by pinging potential victims with an unexpected introductory message—a sort of digital opening line. In fact, the FTC reports that 40% of online dating and romance scams began with a message on social media, versus only 19% on dating apps.
With the initial connection made, a chat begins, and a friendship (or more) blossoms from there. Along the way, the scammer will often rely on a mix of somewhat exotic yet believable storytelling to lure the victim in. Often, that will involve their job and where they’re working. Reports say that scammers will talk of being workers on an offshore oil rig, members of the military stationed overseas, doctors working with an international organization, or working in the sort of jobs that would prevent them from otherwise easily meeting up in person.
With the phony relationship established, the scammer starts asking for money. The FTC reports that they’ll ask for money for several bogus reasons, usually revolving around some sort of hardship where they need a “little help” so that they can pay:
- For a plane ticket or other travel expenses.
- For medical expenses.
- Customs fees to retrieve something.
- Gambling debts.
- A visa or other official travel documents.
The list goes on, yet that’s the general gist. Scammers often employ a story with an intriguing complication that seems just reasonable enough, one where the romance scammer makes it sound like they could really use the victim’s financial help.
How scammers will ask you to pay
People who have filed fraud reports say they’ve paid their scammer in a few typical ways.
One is by wiring money, often through a wire transfer company. The benefit of this route, for the scammer anyway, is that this is as good as forking over cash. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The victim lacks the protections they have with other payment forms, such as a credit card that allows the holder to cancel or contest a charge.
Another way is through gift cards. Scammers of all stripes, not only romance scammers, like these because they effectively work like cash, whether it’s a gift card for a major online retailer or a chain of brick-and-mortar stores. Like a wire transfer, when that gift card is handed over, the money on it is highly difficult to recover, if at all.
One more common payment is through reloadable debit cards. A scammer might make an initial request for such a card and then make several follow-on requests to load it up again.
In all, a romance scammer will typically look for the easiest payment method that’s the most difficult to contest or reimburse, leaving the victim in a financial lurch when the scam ends.
How to avoid getting stung by an online dating or romance scam
When it comes to meeting new people online, the FTC suggests the following:
- Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person—even if they send you money first.
- Talk to someone you trust about this new love interest. It can be easy to miss things that don’t add up. So pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
- Take the relationship slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers.
- Try a reverse-image search of any profile pictures the person uses. If they’re linked with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.
Scammers, although heartless, are still human. They make mistakes. The stories they concoct are just that. Stories. They might jumble their details, get their times and dates all wrong, or simply get caught in an apparent lie. Also, remember that some scammers might be working with several victims at once, which is yet another opportunity for them to get confused and slip up. Keep an eye out for that. Inconsistencies are the watermarks of a scam.
Protecting yourself further from scams
1. Lock down your privacy on social media
Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and others give you the option of making your profile and posts visible to friends only. Choosing this setting keeps the broader internet from seeing what you’re doing, saying, and posting, which can help protect your privacy and give a romance scammer less information to exploit.
2. Google yourself, and then remove what you find
Have you ever googled yourself online? You’ll find personal info like your date of birth, previous addresses, names of your children and their ages, your estimated income, and more. This information is collected by data brokers and available for sell to advertisers or worse—like scammers. Sophisticated scammers use this information to profile and exploit their victims further. A Personal Data Cleanup service can help you remove this kind of personal data from the web.
3. Say “no” to strangers bearing friend requests
Be critical of the invitations you receive. Out-and-out strangers might be more than a romance scammer. They could be a fake account designed to gather information on users for purposes of cybercrime, or they can be an account designed to spread false information. There are plenty of them too. In fact, in Q1 of 2023 alone, Facebook took action on 426 million fake accounts. Reject such requests.
4. Go light on the details in your dating profile
To the extent that you can, provide the minimum amount of details in your dating profile. Granted, this requires a bit of a balancing act. You want to put some information out there to help find a match, yet too much can give you and your location away. Same for your profile pics. Be sure yours have a generic-looking background, rather than anything that might identify where you live, work, or go to school.
5. Protect yourself and your devices
Online protection software can steer you clear from clicking on malicious links that a scammer might send you online, while also steering you clear of other threats like viruses, ransomware, and phishing attacks in general. It can look out for your personal information as well, by protecting your privacy and monitoring your email, SSN, bank accounts, credit cards, and other info that a scammer or identity thief might put to use. With identity theft a rather commonplace occurrence today, security software is really a must.
Put an end to it
If you suspect that you’re being scammed, put an end to the relationship and report it, as difficult as that might feel.
Notify the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov for support and next steps to help you recover financially as much as possible. Likewise, notify the social media site, app, or service where the scam occurred as well. In some cases, you might want to file a police report, which we cover in our broader article on identity theft and fraud.
If you sent funds via a gift card, the FTC suggests filing a claim with the company as soon as possible. They offer further advice on filing a claim here, along with a list of contact numbers for gift card brands that scammers commonly use.
Lastly, go easy on yourself. If you find yourself a victim of online dating or romance fraud, know that you won’t be the first or last person to be taken advantage of this way. By reporting your case, you in fact might help others from falling victim too.
Follow us to stay updated on all things McAfee and on top of the latest consumer and mobile security threats.