With Valentine’s Day only a few days away, officials are warning about identity theft and cyber scams that leave hearts and bank accounts broken.
Well-rehearsed criminals regularly search dating sites, apps, chat rooms and other social media networking sites attempting to build “relationships” for the sole purpose of stealing money and personally identifiable information, according to the FBI.
The FBI says scammers use poetry, flowers, and other gifts to reel in victims, all while declaring their “undying love.” These criminals often use stories of severe life circumstances, tragedies, deaths in the family, injuries to themselves, other hardships to keep their victims concerned and involved in their schemes. Scammers then often ask victims to send money to help them overcome a financial situation they claim to be experiencing. These are all lies intended to take money from unsuspecting victims.
The criminals use well-rehearsed scripts and sometimes keep journals on their victims to better understand how to manipulate and exploit them. In some cases, victims may be recruited, unknowingly, to transfer money illegally on behalf of others.
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), nationwide in 2020, almost 23,768 complaints categorized as romance scams were reported to the IC3 (4,295 more than the previous year), and the losses associated with those complaints total approximately $605 million.
“Most often these romance scammers leave victims financially and emotionally devastated. Many victims may not have the ability to recover from the financial loss,” said Luis M. Quesada, special agent in charge of the FBI’s El Paso division. “While we recognize that it may be embarrassing for victims to report this type of fraud, it’s important to do so, so that the FBI and our law enforcement partners can do everything in our power to ensure these online imposters are held accountable.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) agrees there is a growing problem, although its estimate of the romance losses reported to its agency is lower. Federal Trade Commission data that show consumers reported losing a record $304 million to the scams last year.
The FTC said the amount consumers reported losing to romance scammers is up about 50 percent since 2019, and has increased more than fourfold since 2016.
The median loss reported to the FTC is $2,500—more than 10 times higher than the median loss across all other frauds.
Officials note that scammers draw people in using pictures stolen from around the internet, building false personas that seem just real enough to be true, but always having a reason never to meet in person. Eventually, the supposed suitor will ask for money.
They also note that with the COVD-19 pandemic resulting in people staying physically distant, more consumers are looking for relationships online and providing scammers with reasons to put off meeting in person.
While many people report the romance scam started on a dating site or app, even more report that the scam originated from contact through social media.
According to the FTC, consumers most often report sending money to romance scammers by wire transfer or in the form of gift cards. Reports of gift cards used to pay romance scammers were up by nearly 70 percent over 2019.
The FTC provides tips for consumers on how to spot romance scams and protect themselves at ftc.gov/romancescams.
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