People looking for love online should hold on to their wallets.
More than 12,500 people filed romance scam complaints with the FBI in 2015, losing more than $200 million to fraudsters. Of 288,000 online scams, with losses totaling almost $1.1 billion, romance scams accounted for 20 percent of all losses and only 4 percent of all victims.
Could this happen to you? In a word, yes. Here’s how it works: Romance scammers might persuade you to drain your bank accounts, max out your credit cards or even sell your home — all to send them the cash. Worse? You could unwittingly become part of money laundering or drug trafficking schemes.
“They’re all smoke and mirrors,” Barb Sluppick, owner of RomanceScams.org, says of the scammers. “They slowly become part of the victim’s dreams.” Sluppick’s organization provides support and education to those who lose their hearts — and often a chunk of their finances — to scammers.
How a romance scam works
Chances are you’ve tried an online dating site in hopes of finding true love. Unfortunately, scammers post fake profiles and pictures on these same sites in hopes of finding deep pockets.
Where to get help
If you’ve fallen victim to a romance scammer, here are some ways to start regaining control of your financial life.
File a complaint:
- Federal Trade Commission: Call 877-FTC-Help, or file a complaint online.
- FBI: File a complaint at Internet Crime Complaint Center.
- AARP: Call the Fraud Watch Hotline, 877-908-3360.
If you’ve wired money to a scammer:
Western Union agreed in January 2016 to a $586 million settlement with the FTC over allegations of looking the other way and allowing fraud and money laundering.
Western Union received at least 44,500 complaints about online dating and romance scams, with losses totaling at least $41 million, between 2004 and 2015, the FTC’s Todd Kossow says.
Amy Nofziger, regional director of the AARP Foundation, explained how a romance scam works:
The scammer will often say he or she is from the United States, but is traveling or working overseas, and will quickly profess his or her love for you. The scammer often will make excuses for why he or she can’t talk on the phone, or will make — and then cancel — plans to meet you.
The scammer then will claim there has been an emergency and he or she needs money. If you’re already smitten, you may wire funds to the scammer — no questions asked.
“They are caught in the scammer’s web,” Nofziger says. “The victims are legitimately in love, legitimately care for this person. They’re planning their life together. They’re thinking emotionally, not cognitively.”
In some cases, victims have bought wedding dresses, engagement rings or made wedding plans with someone they’ve never met, Nofziger says.
“The victims often don’t have doubts because scammers are so good at nurturing relationships,” says Todd Kossow, director of the Midwest region of the Federal Trade Commission, which collects scam reports.
Victims include everyone from doctors and lawyers to CEOs and cops, Sluppick says. In many cases, they’re lonely after a divorce, the death of a spouse, or their kids are grown and have left home.
Sluppick has found it’s usually those who are middle-aged and older — and an equal number of men and women — who tend to fall victim to scammers.
Your love interest may be an impostor
How can you protect yourself? Be aware of the risks and be alert for red flags.
Experts warn that the scammers usually want you to immediately leave the online dating website, and instead communicate by email, phone or instant message.
They’ll quickly weasel their way into your life, learning your favorite foods or favorite color, Sluppick says. If a friend voices suspicion, the scammer will say the friend is jealous and tell you to stop talking to your friend, she says.
Experts said the scammers will operate in teams and may work off scripts. Their correspondence may contain spelling and grammatical errors.
They work around the clock, and will keep you up all night communicating, she says. “They get the victim in a fog so she’s no longer thinking clearly.”
It’s not unusual for scammers to claim they’re in the military. “Who doesn’t love someone in uniform?” Nofziger asks.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command has issued warnings about scammers who claim to be military members. Spokesman Christopher Grey says the Army receives several dozen calls each week about scammers who purport to be in the military.
The romance scammers often will steal a military member’s photo from social media sites or press releases, Grey says, and may even use the military member’s name in their online profiles. Even senior Department of Defense leaders have had their identities stolen by these fraudsters.
Other dangers: sextortion and worse
If you’re all dreamy about your online love, you may be vulnerable to sextortion, a form of blackmail, Sluppick says. Don’t let yourself be persuaded to take off your clothes and perform sex acts in front of your computer, as all of this is often being filmed by the scammer.
If you become suspicious of your scammer, the fraudster may threaten to send the video to your friends, family, workplace or church if you won’t send money.
“It’s all about the threat,” she says. If the scammers do send the video, they won’t get any cash.
“Please, keep your webcam off and your pants on,” Sluppick says.
Other tricks include getting you to smuggle drugs or launder money unknowingly.
For example, Joseph Byron Martin, a 77-year-old retired pastor in Maine, was released from a Spanish prison in 2016. He had spent nearly a year behind bars after being duped into believing he was transporting real estate papers from South America to London for a woman he’d met online.
In reality, the package contained about 2 kilograms of cocaine.
How might you be lured into money laundering? The scammer might ask you to open a new bank account. The scammer transfers stolen money into the account, then asks you to wire it out of the country, the FTC warns.
Keep your guard up
Rather than jumping right into an online relationship, “Be mysterious,” Nofziger advises. Don’t disclose your last name, your address, your place of work or other personal details until you meet your love interest in person. “It’s a tiptoe. It’s a dance. Don’t give out everything right away.”
If you have any suspicions, search online to check if what he or she has told you jibes with what is publicly available online.
You also can copy portions of emails a love interest has sent and use an online search engine to see if the text appears elsewhere, because many scammers work off scripts, Nofziger says.
Also, copy his or her photo and do an image search to see if anyone else shows up with that photo, Nofziger says.
If a friend or family member falls for a romance scammer, encourage your friend or loved one to get professional help. “Have compassion and empathy. They lost a lot of money and the love of their life,” Nofziger says.
And always remember: While anyone can fall prey to a romance scammer, it’s typically “someone who really believes in true love, love at first sight,” or in the world of online dating, “love at first type,” Kossow says.
Editor’s note: This story, “Online dating scams: How to protect your heart and wallet,” was posted originally on CreditCards.com.