Irene recently started an online dating journey. She joined her first platform and spent nearly an hour filling in all the questions and prompts on her profile. She looked around at her dating pool, and she felt excited. There were so many interesting men to meet!
A couple of weeks after creating her profile, Irene received a message from Tom, a handsome Australian rancher. He was just looking around the site when Irene caught his eye, he said. She’d never connected with someone long-distance before, but she was intrigued by his photos. She decided to respond, and the rest felt like a fairy tale.
Tom was attentive, romantic, and wanted to know everything about Irene. He asked her about her childhood, her favorite hobbies, her job, everything. Irene couldn’t believe how incredible Tom seemed. The only problem? He couldn’t afford the plane ticket to the United States to visit her.
Wanting to take their relationship to the next level, Irene thought paying for a plane ticket was a no-brainer. It cost nearly $2500, but that was a small price for true love. She sent Tom the cost of round-trip airfare, and she waited for her sweetheart to arrive.
She never heard from “Tom” again.
What Are Romance Scams
The Internet is rife with dishonest people. When looking for love online, it’s hard to tell who is real and who is too good to be true. Unfortunately, dating apps and sites are full of false, misleading, and fully fabricated profiles. Scammers find their way to you using these fake online personas.
Victims of romance scams report being contacted most often on social media sites (40%), followed by online dating platforms (19%). The initial messages seem to come from a normal profile, enticing you to let your guard down. After a bit of time, they will usually try to convince you to move your conversation to a private channel, like email or WhatsApp.
The Better Business Bureau makes an important distinction between romance scammers and typical catfishers. When someone is catfishing, they only conceal their identity; they don’t initially intend to steal money from you. A romance scammer starts out with the goal of getting your money, sensitive personal information, or both.
According to the FTC, those who sent money via cryptocurrency lost the most, but the most common way scammers get ahold of your hard-earned money is through gift cards. Scammers convince their victims to send money through channels that are difficult to trace, meaning that lost money often can’t be recovered.
Popular tactics by scammers include:
They avoid meeting in person. A scammer will always have a reason not to meet you face-to-face. They might tell you they live in another state, or even in another country, in hopes you’ll believe they’re a legitimate long-distance partner. They may also say they’re stuck on an offshore oil rig, or that they are on a foreign military base, the most popular excuse.
They have a sudden—and costly—emergency. A scammer might “get into an accident” shortly after gaining your trust and claim to need help covering medical bills, treatments, or household expenses. The emergency could also be business-related, or your scammer might need your assistance paying off debts. They may also fabricate children or grandchildren who need your help.
They offer to do you a favor. To get your guard down, scammers might sometimes offer to do something for you. They may claim to be wealthy from their investment portfolio and offer to teach you about investing. However, once you send money and/or cryptocurrency, the “lessons” never begin.
Another strategy is to tell you they’re sending you a gift. They will ask you to send money to receive the package, presumably for shipping and customs costs. However, just like in the crypto scam, when you send money, the scammer just pockets the cash.
They have a preferred payment method. According to the FTC, all scammers, not just romance scammers, prioritize speed when getting your money. They also want to minimize your ability to get any of it back. Wire transfers through companies like Western Union and MoneyGram are popular methods used by scammers.
The most common way scammers ask to receive money is via gift card or prepaid debit card. Nearly 1 in 4 victims said this was how their scammer got money from them. In recent years, money transfer apps have also become more common among scams across the board.
Who Do Romance Scammers Target?
Older adults are especially vulnerable to romance scams. According to the Department of Homeland Security, adults over 55 lost nearly $139 million to romance scams in the year 2020 alone. This accounted for about one-third of the money lost to romance scams by all age groups that year.
Older adults tend to be viewed as easier targets for many scams. This may be because older adults are perceived as less digitally literate than their younger peers on the internet. Romance scams, in particular, prey on people’s loneliness, and older adults struggle with being lonely more than any other age group.
While older adults tend to be the targets of scammers, people of all ages should be wary when using dating apps or looking for love on dating sites. In fact, there are certain tactics that younger people tend to encounter more often.
One of these is something called “sextortion”. Some scammers will trick their victims into sending them intimate photos by posing as a romantic prospect. Once they have the compromising images they’re after, the scammer threatens to send them to your friends, loved ones, and professional colleagues. To avoid embarrassment, victims may pay the scammer.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, sextortion scams are reported six times more often by adults aged 18-29 than by adults over 30. Like many other tactics, nearly 6 in 10 report being contacted by scammers on social media first. Worryingly, reports of this kind of scamming went up astronomically between 2019 and 2023, increasing eightfold in just four years.
How to Avoid Romance Scams
There are countless tactics used by scammers on the Internet, and they are thinking of new ways to line their pockets every day. It’s important to stay vigilant and think critically about the messages you receive online. Here are some strategies you can use to protect yourself from romance scams online:
- First and foremost, don’t ever send money to someone you’ve only talked to online and never met face-to-face. It doesn’t matter if it’s cash, cryptocurrency, gift cards, or reloading a debit card—once it’s gone, it’s gone.
- Be mindful of what you post online. Scammers can use things like your last name or job to manipulate you or steal your identity. Be smart about sharing personal info on dating apps or with anyone you’ve only talked to online.
- Stay alert, even if you’re the one who reached out first. Stick to well-known sites, take it slow, and ask your date plenty of questions. If something seems off or too good to be true, it likely is. Be skeptical of anyone who appears too perfect—they might be a scammer.
- When you’re talking to a stranger online, it’s important to remember they are just that: a stranger. Be suspicious of anyone who is overly flirtatious or complimentary. Scammers want to get your guard down, and flattery is an easy way to do this.
- Investigate the person’s picture and details. Use a reverse image search to find where else their pictures appear online. If you find them under a different name, or with inconsistent details, this is a huge red flag for a potential scam.
- Copy and paste their initial messages into a search engine to check for common romance scam phrases. You can also get more information by searching online for their job with the word “scammer”. For example, the search terms “oil rig scammer” or “US Army scammer” yield hundreds of results.
- Be wary if they keep canceling plans and always seem to have a convenient excuse. This may be a sign that the person behind the profile is not who they claim to be.
- Talk about your new romantic interest with loved ones who you trust. If they raise concerns, take them seriously. The people who love you want to see you safe and happy, so don’t let defensiveness cloud your thoughts.
If you think someone might be trying to scam you, just stop talking to them right away. Don’t engage with them anymore. Block them on any platforms you’ve connected on, and inform the site or app where the scammer first made contact.
In the world of online dating, romance scams can turn a digital fairy tale into a nightmare. Romance scammers are skilled at creating elaborate stories to tug at your heartstrings, with the ultimate goal of emptying your pockets. To protect yourself, stay watchful, stay skeptical, and, above all, stay cautious. Don’t get swept up in the allure of a seemingly perfect connection without doing your due diligence. Keep your heart and your wallet safe from the clutches of online romance scams.