Sometimes, loneliness coupled with a quest for love can cause people to lose sight of reality, and end with them draining their bank accounts to help someone they’ve never even met in person. Unfortunately, dating apps and social media sites have become hot spots for criminals posing as Mr. or Mrs. Right, masquerading as professionals who just happen to be working in far off places — but they’re really criminals in disguise, looking to separate unsuspecting victims from their money.
Business is booming for lying dirty cheats. In 2020, more than 23,000 victims reported losing more than $605 million to romance scams, according to the FBI, who investigate crimes of the heart tied to our wallets. That’s up from five years ago when some 12,500 victims reported more than $203 million in losses. The real numbers are likely much higher since many people are too embarrassed to report the crime to authorities. The Better Business Bureau estimates that as many as a million people in the United States have fallen victim to dating schemes.
While people reaching middle age and beyond (ages 40-69) are tricked by romance scams more often than younger age groups, those 70 and older reported the highest individual median losses at $9,475 per scam, says Deborah Royster of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“A loss of that magnitude can be just devastating for an older adult,” she notes. “Often, they are not able to recover those losses.”
Of course, there are plenty of couples who meet online, fall in love and live happily ever after. The difference is, like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail,” those people did eventually meet for drinks and meals and movie nights.
When you first meet someone online, and things feel a bit off, look for these red flags before taking it to the next level:
THEY PROFESS THEIR LOVE TOO QUICKLY
If you meet someone on a dating app or website, or through a social media platform such as Facebook or Instagram, and they tell you they are falling in love after just a few conversations, be suspicious. Yes, you’re amazing, so don’t doubt that. But if someone uses the “L” word ASAP, warning bells should be sounding. It’s important to take things slowly, especially if you’ve never laid eyes on the person in real life.
THEY WORK OUT OF STATE OR OVERSEAS
Some of the most common occupations made up by scammers and reported to authorities include working on oil rigs, serving in the military in an undisclosed location, physicians working outside the United States, and people in construction jobs that keep them on the road for most of the year, the FBI reports. There are also multiple reports of a successful businessman in Turkey — momentarily short on cash — who needs gift cards for his son’s birthday.
THEY ASK FOR MONEY FOR AN EMERGENCY
Con artists are big on talking about trust and use bogus stories of sad life circumstances, deaths in the family, injuries and other hardships to keep their new love interests concerned and involved in their schemes. Scammers often ask victims to send money to help them overcome a difficult financial situation. Be wary of these tall tales and never send cash, preloaded gift cards or money orders to someone you have never met in person or don’t know well.
In 2020, reports of gift cards being used to send money to romance scammers increased by nearly 70%, notes the Federal Trade Commission. Gift cards, along with wire transfers, are the most frequently reported payment methods for romance scams.
Not all faux Romeos move fast. Some tricksters string their victims along for weeks or months before finally asking for money. Because they are typically scamming several victims at the same time, they can spread out their requests to be more convincing.
THEY WANT TO SEND YOU A LARGE SUM OF MONEY
Some criminals are looking for people to launder money for them that was gained unlawfully. If a romantic interest you have only known for a short while wants to send you a pile of money, do not accept it, and break off communications with the person. Lisa Schifferle, a policy analyst with the Office of Older Americans at the CFPB, says there are thieves using stolen unemployment benefits from the pandemic who need trusting people to accept and move money through their bank accounts. The only thing worse than finding out your new boyfriend is a liar is finding out he’s a liar after you’re sitting in a jail cell for unknowingly helping him launder money.
THEIR PHOTOS OR ONLINE PROFILE SEEMS A LITTLE TOO PERFECT
Sometimes, people will photoshop their images to look a little too attractive— or their photos will display perfect vistas of them on a beach, atop the Eiffel Tower, or under a Tuscan sun. Other times, scammers just steal someone else’s photo and profile to create a fake one. Also, it’s time to be suspicious if your new online suitor has all of the same likes and interests as you, right down to your love of Hallmark Christmas movies and fresh boxes of tagalongs. Those kinds of made-for TV-matches exist only in your Hollywood dreams.
THEY ASK FOR PERSONAL INFORMATION OR PHOTOS
This kind of request can be even worse than straight up asking for money. If a new love interest wants to know your birthday (month and year), bank account info, social security number, home address and ZIP code, names of your pets and children, or even passwords to social media or email accounts, he or she is definitely, 100% up to no good. Some romance scammers will ask you to send photos or videos of yourself in a compromising position and then use those images to blackmail you.
If a scammer gets enough of your personal information, they can steal your identity, open up phony credit cards in your name and do all manner of harm to your credit.
THEY USE COVID (OR ANY OTHER EXCUSE THEY CAN THINK OF) NOT TO MEET
Your new flame really really wants to visit. He even bought a plane ticket and a gift. He took time off from work. Then, suddenly, his mother is hospitalized with pneumonia and your first meeting is postponed. Again.
The pandemic has helped con artist’s stories about not being able to meet in person much more believable. “We have all been confined to our houses and more isolated, and this makes some people more susceptible to scammers,” Royster says. One new twist is that a scammer will use a positive COVID diagnosis as the reason they can’t meet in person. Then, they have a 14-day quarantine period to come up with another excuse to stay away, or avoid getting on an airplane.
THEY PREFER EMAIL AND TEXTING TO VIDEO CHATS
This is almost always a sure sign of someone who doesn’t want you to know their true identity. There’s a reason people say your eyes are the windows to your soul… Someone who doesn’t want to show you their face can’t be trusted. Some sly scammers who do video chat with victims sit in low light rooms that make it nearly impossible to see their faces clearly. This is your sign that they are probably shady, both inside and out.
HOW TO AVOID ROMANCE SCAMS
With years of experience prosecuting scammers, federal agencies know the tell-tale signs con artists use and offer these tips for not being fooled by a phony love interest:
- Don’t accept friend or follow requests on social media from people you don’t know.
- Clean up your social media accounts by removing any lists with your children or parents and your birthday. Scammers can use this information to figure out your passwords and gain access to other accounts.
- Never send money, gift cards, or wire transfers to someone you haven’t met in person.
- Use dating websites with national reputations, but still assume criminals are trolling even the most reputable online spots for new victims.
- Use online search tools such as Google to make sure no one else shares the same profile info and photo that your new love interest is using. Also look to see if the same story line you have heard is being used on others.
- If you plan to meet someone in person that you have met online, the FBI recommends using caution, do not travel alone, and check the State Department’s travel advisories before arranging any travel.
- Trust your gut. If something feels off, it very well could be. Talk about the new relationship with a trusted friend or family member to get their take on the situation.
It’s important to report romance scams and financial abuse to your state’s attorney general. Visit the National Association of Attorneys General website for the contact information of your state AG. You can also report suspected online dating and romance scams to the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint .
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- You Just Gave A Scammer Your Personal Info. Here’s What To Do Next.
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