How to Protect Yourself Against Romance Scams
WHAT IS A ROMANCE SCAM?
A romance scam is a specific type of confidence scam, in which a person is defrauded after another person has gained their trust. In this scenario, the fraudster creates a fake identity to gain the victim’s affection and trust, then exploits this relationship for their financial gain.
ROMANCE SCAMS BY THE NUMBERS
Victims of a romance scam are more likely to suffer a larger financial loss than almost any other type of scam. Statistically speaking, most will never recover from the loss. The frequency of this scam has increased over 150% since 2015, causing more than $475 million in losses in 2019 alone. In fact, these statistics likely don’t show the full impact of romance scams, as they are often underreported for reasons we’ll cover later.
Romance scams can affect people of all ages; fraudsters do not discriminate based upon age and will victimize any person that gets caught up in the sham. However, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), people ages 40-69 are twice as likely to fall for romance scams than 20-year-olds.
HOW ROMANCE SCAMS TYPICALLY WORK
People have become too comfortable with the internet and tend to believe what is being presented online is real. To begin a romance scam, a fraudster will create fake profiles on social media and dating sites, with the goal of connecting with a target.
A romance scam can be either a short con, where the scammer is looking to exploit the relationship early on, or it can be a long con, where the scam builds for months or even years before the exploitation happens.
This can be a sophisticated con. There are reports that after making contact with a victim and cultivating a history with that person, fraudsters have gone as far as providing a dossier of the relationship to another scammer. That scammer will then call the victim and pretend to be the “person” the victim has been communicating with online, adding to the legitimacy that there is a real person behind the online profile.
There is a whole other layer of criminals that work in call centers solely to support online romance scams by placing these types of calls. This confidence scam is its own international economy. All of these fraudsters are good at what they do—they treat it like it’s their job and consider their victims as nothing more than their “clients,” like any other profession.
HOW THE CONVERSATION TURNS TO FINANCES
The specific stories change, but eventually the conversations always turn to finances. Sometimes the scammer tells a story that might prompt the victim to offer financial assistance of their own accord. One common story is that they are stuck in an abusive relationship until they’re able to buy a car and escape, prodding the victim to send them money to help.
Other times they want to move funds through the victim’s account. Instead of the victim giving them money, scammers will send the victim what turns out to be stolen funds that will eventually be recalled through the reclamation process. Before the deposits are rejected, the victim will have sent payment or provided account information for the fraudster to use what ends up being ill-gotten funds. The appearance of a deposit in the victim’s account creates a false sense of security that makes the victim feel safe in providing money or account access.
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There are many different stories used in romance scams to move funds in this way. The story might be that they have decided to move to be with you and want to place money into your account for you to use toward their moving expenses. You might even be promised that you can use some of the money to help pay your bills. It could be that their employer cannot send them a paycheck because they are working overseas–could their paycheck be deposited into your account for you to send them the funds? Other times they want to give you money. One day a book of checks show up with your name printed on it; you can use the checks, but you need to deposit one into your account first and send some of the funds to another person.
What many people do not realize is that if fraudulent funds are processed through your account and then withdrawn, you as the account holder are responsible for paying those funds back.
THE SECOND COST OF ROMANCE SCAMS
Even though the financial impact can be life changing, one could argue that the greater victimization occurs with the emotional toll it takes. People who fall prey to these scams have been emotionally invested in what they thought was a real connection with another person. The person that they felt they knew, perhaps even loved, does not exist. They have to come to terms with the fact that this person they thought they knew and all those conversations they had existed for one purpose: financial gain for a criminal.
This can cause some victims to feel shame and embarrassment over being duped, which is why romance scams are likely more prevalent than is reported. They have a hard time opening up and sharing that they were fooled. Some victims have even fallen into depression and, in the most extreme cases, taken their life. These are some of the reasons beyond money why it is important to stay vigilant and be educated on ways to help keep ourselves safe from scammers.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF AGAINST ROMANCE SCAMS
If you are in or thinking about a relationship with someone that you have met online, keep these suggestions in mind to protect yourself from being defrauded:
Do not share sensitive information about yourself such as bank account numbers, account login information, or your Social Security number.
Do not send money or gifts to people that you have not met in person.
If the person refuses to meet in person or always cancels in-person meetings, this is a sign they could be a fraudster attempting to scam you.
Be careful with what you share online. Fraudsters can use this information to target you better, preying on your love of dogs or selecting you as a victim after bragging about a recent windfall.
Do not be afraid to go slow, especially if the person seems “too good to be true” or quickly confesses their love.
Ask questions and be on the lookout for inconsistent answers or answers that individually seem reasonable, but together do not add up. For example, why can’t your boyfriend’s construction company send him payment directly if he’s asking you to wire him money?
Beware a person who tries to isolate you from friends and family.
Talk to a trusted friend or family member about this new person in your life and pay attention if they express concerns. They have known you for longer and are looking out for you.
Perform an image search of their profile picture to see if it is linked to different names or points to details that do not match what they have told you.
Do not have a false sense of security because you made the first contact.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU'RE BEING SCAMMED
If you suspect the person you are talking to is a fraudster, stop all communications with them. If you met on a dating site, report them to the site administrators. Report any suspected online romance scam to the Internet Crime Complaint Center and the FTC.
In the unfortunate event you have been scammed and your financial information has been compromised, contact your financial institution immediately. They can help with the process of securing your accounts and may even be able to help mitigate your loss.
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The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of VSECU.