For years now, the popularity of online dating has been on the rise—and so have the number of online romance scams that leave people with broken hearts and empty wallets.
According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the reported costs of online romance scams jumped 50% from 2019 to 2020, to the tune of $304 million. And that’s not entirely because 2020 was a pandemic year. From 2016 to 2020, the volume of reported cases tripled, while reported losses nearly quadrupled. Over that period, online romance scams are not only becoming more common, but they’re also becoming more costly.
How do online dating and romance scams get started?
Dating and romance scams aren’t limited to online dating apps and sites, they’ll happen on social media and in online games as well. However, the FTC reports that the scam usually starts the same way, typically through an unexpected friend request or a message that comes out of the blue.
With that initial introduction 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 involving 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.
Common types of online dating scams
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 just 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, once 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 may 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 once the scam ends.
How Do You Avoid Getting Tangled Up in 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 associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.
Scammers, although arguably heartless, are still human. They make mistakes. The stories they concoct are just that. Stories. They may jumble their details, get their times and dates all wrong, or simply get caught in an apparent lie. Also, keep in mind that some scammers may be working with several victims at once, which is yet another opportunity for them to get confused and slip up.
Protecting Yourself Further From Scams on Your Social Media Accounts
As mentioned above, some romance scammers troll social media and reach out through a direct message or friend request. With that, there are three things you can do to cut down your chances of getting caught up with a scammer:
1. Go private
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. Say “no” to strangers bearing friend requests
Be critical of the invitations you receive. Out-and-out strangers could 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 Q3 of 2021 alone, Facebook took action on 1.8 billion fake accounts. Reject such requests.
3. Protect yourself and your devices
Security software can protect you from clicking on malicious links that a scammer may 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 may 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 may 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 may 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 may help others from falling victim too.
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