Lifestyle

6/4/2021 | By Annie Tobey

The way to a person’s bank account is through their heart. Or at least that’s what internet scammers have discovered. Pull at the heartstrings, make someone feel loved … and then ask for help – i.e., for money. The Federal Trade Commission reported that internet romance scams reached a record $304 million scammed off innocent victims in 2020. That’s up 50% from 2019 and represents a median dollar loss of $2,500 for individual victims. From 2016 to 2020, reported dollar losses increased more than fourfold; the number of reports nearly tripled.

According to the 2020 BBB Scam Tracker Risk Report, people ages 18–24 had the same median dollar loss for scams overall as that of ages 65+. Internet romance scams continued to be the riskiest scams for ages 55 through 64, and the third riskiest scams for ages 65-plus (behind travel/vacation/timeshare scams and online purchases). People of all ages, genders, racial backgrounds, and sexual orientation can become victims. Men are likely to lose more money in a scam, but women are more likely to be taken by romance scams.

Given this scary reality, how can you avoid becoming a victim?

Know the game to avoid being duped

Romance scammers prowl dating sites as well as popular social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. They create fake profiles and fictional backstories, then strike up a relationship with their targets.

Scammers “groom” their targets by building trust, affection, and even respect. They often say they’re temporarily living or traveling outside of the United States. (Thus they have an excuse why they can’t meet face to face.) Common fictitious professions include oil rig worker or mine owner, military, or medical professional with an international organization – all respectable professions, to build trust and respect.

The scammers may quickly suggest communicating directly by email or phone. (This way, if they’re banned from the dating or social media site, the target will be none the wiser and communication can continue.) They may want to chat several times a day, and they will pull the target in with professions of love and attraction. (After all, an infatuated target will listen to their heart and libido instead of their brain.) The scammer may drop a few hints about financial troubles or a sad story about family challenges. The scammer might also try to isolate victims from friends and families.

Then comes the sting: scammers make up a sob story and ask for money. Common tales behind requests for money include travel expenses to allegedly visit the victim or for a family emergency, for surgery or other medical expenses, and for customs fees or other fines.

Scammers ask people to pay by wiring money, with reload cards like MoneyPak, or with gift cards from vendors such as Amazon, iTunes, or Steam. These methods allow them to get cash quickly and anonymously.

One recent scam involves asking victims to set up a new bank account. The scammers transfer money into that account (either stolen money or a rubber check), then request that the “soulmate” wire the funds elsewhere. The victim has now become engaged in money laundering, or is simply that much poorer.

In a few cases victims have even convinced to fly overseas to meet their love only to be kidnapped and held for ransom.

Tips to spot internet romance scams

To ensure you don’t get led astray by scammers, be wary anytime a new contact:

  • Seems very successful and has movie-star looks
  • Is in a hurry to get off the site and communicate directly by email, messenger, or phone
  • Quickly begins declaring love and speaking of a future together
  • Emphasizes trust
  • Finds excuses not to meet face to face
  • Has poor spelling or grammar or uses flowery language or phrases that don’t make sense
  • Shares hard-luck stories

As you begin a new online relationship

  • Be careful and be skeptical. If really do you find Prince Charming or Sleeping Beauty, they’ll understand. You can throw caution to the wind later.
  • Take it slow. Ask questions and be on the lookout for inconsistent answers.
  • Notice if their profile disappears soon after you meet
  • Note whether their conversations match their profile information.
  • Note whether they’re addressing your unique profile information or just making generic chit-chat. (Even if they’re not a scammer, you don’t want to end up with a narcissist!)
  • Exercise caution in accepting Facebook invitations. Look for mutual friends or other legitimizing information or photos.
  • Keep a trustworthy friend updated on any new romantic interest, so they can help you see things that don’t add up. Claire (not her real name) got duped into sending money to someone claiming to be a captain in the U.S. Army stationed in Afghanistan. She advises, “A good rule of thumb is if you can’t tell your family about someone you’re with, there’s a BIG problem.”
  • Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person. Don’t accept money either.
  • Never send address or personal information that can be used for identity theft (credit card information, government ID numbers, etc.).
  • Don’t send racy pictures or videos that could later be used in a blackmail attempt.

If you become suspicious

  • Do a reverse image search of their profile photo at https://images.google.com or tineye.com.
  • Search online for a profile name, email, or phone number to see if anything looks suspicious.
  • Learn more at ftc.gov/romancescams.
  • Contact your bank or the wire transfer service if you’ve sent money.
  • Break contact immediately. Scammers have been known to woo their victims back, continuing the game of draining money.
  • Report your experience to the online dating or social media service, the FTC (ftc.gov/complaint), and the FBI (ic3.gov).

Dating sites can lead to genuine relationships, and social media can provide worthwhile connections – with people who fall in love after getting to know who you really are! Genuine love will build over time, with patience and understanding.

Top 6 Ways to Find (Real) Romance as a Senior

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey