A whirlwind romance and being swept off your feet by the perfect partner form the basis of many Hollywood romantic movie scripts. And as many of us are romantics at heart, the desire to believe it’s a possible scenario is burnt into our very being. In the harsh reality of life, though, scammers play on these emotions and use that desire to take cash fraudulently and destroy dreams. Romance scammers, with fake profiles and identities, strike up relationships with their potential victims on popular dating apps and through social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. They create elaborate stories of being in international business, working offshore with oil companies, actively serving in the military or even as an aid worker or doctor doing great things within impoverished communities. One thing for certain is they are not close by or in a position to meet.
Once they have their victim on the hook and both parties are professing their love for each other, in typically very short timescales the elaborate story telling will take a turn towards monetizing their efforts. The need to pay for urgent medical treatment or for a visa and travel in order to meet becomes an urgent request for the victim to wire money or reload gift cards that can be laundered into cash.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, between 2015 and 2019 financial losses associated with romance scams increased sixfold, from $33 million to $201 million respectively. Scamwatch Radar, part of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, provides a breakdown of the platforms used by scammers to dupe their victims, with social networking, mobile applications, and the internet accounting for 77.2% of the delivery methods.
The pandemic may have created challenges for some businesses, but online dating is not one of them. At the start of the stay-at-home orders in March, 2020, dating.com reported that 82% of singles turned to online dating to improve health and wellness. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the trend, unsurprisingly, continued through 2020 with Match claiming that messages exchanged by singles on their service increased by 30% between March and November, 2020.
It’s clear that the issue of romance scams was not improving pre-pandemic, and the issue is likely to have become exacerbated due to the COVID concerns. As scammers often use medical circumstances as the reason to request funds, I would expect them to claim to need a vaccine for themselves or an elderly relative and needing to pay for it or to travel to get it. Remember, these are career criminals who have no empathy towards their victims.
So, what do users of online dating apps and social media services need to be on the lookout for?
- A perfect person with a perfect story: if they sound too good to be true then they likely are.
- An online presence that is not consistent with what they tell you in communications, they may even describe themselves differently than in their online profile.
- Don’t be fooled by time; these scammers are often in this for the long haul and will have patience of months or even years to gain your trust.
- Creating excuses about their ability to meet in person, not just because of the pandemic. Or agreeing to meet but cancelling and giving plausible-sounding excuses about needing to fund their travel.
- An overwhelming and fast progression to professing deep feelings or love, despite never having met.
- To avoid detection, attempting to move the conversation away from an online dating service or social media app. If the conversation is shifted to a platform that has autodeletion options, this removes evidence that may later be needed by law enforcement.
- If they attempt to isolate you or discredit and distance you from concerned family members.
- A progression of desperation if you don’t agree to send funds quickly to help them avert their fraudulent emergency.
And here are some tips on how to protect yourself.
- Take things slowly.
- Don’t overshare personal details in profiles or on social media. The data you share may allow profiling and targeting by a scammer.
- Ask a lot of questions and compare the answers with what was posted online in profiles.
- Never share intimate photos: this can lead to a sextortion issue where you feel compelled to pay the scammer not to publish them.
- Use search engines…
- If the text they send seems ‘canned’, then search for it on the internet. You can do this by placing the text string in quotes so that it is searched for in its entirety. They may be using the same text to dupe several victims.
- Do a reverse image lookup: Google offer this service and details on how to do this can be found here. The image may appear with different personalities associated with it or be a stock image, never a good sign.
- Never send money to someone claiming to have romantic feelings for you yet have never met in person
If you are concerned that you may be a victim of a romance scam, don’t be too embarrassed to admit it; these scammers can be very convincing and have a very compelling back story. In the unfortunate scenario where you have sent money or provided bank account details, then contact your bank immediately and explain the situation: if you do so quickly enough, the bank can easily freeze your accounts and investigate where payments may have gone. If the connection was initiated on a dating platform and the profile still exists, then report it as suspect or fraudulent to the service provider.
It’s also important to report the scammer, even if you have not sent them money, by filing a complaint with authorities regarding your experience; it may help others avoid a similar situation in the future. The more complaints that are reported will help raise awareness with law enforcement, the higher the number of scams the more focus it will get. In the US there are several places to report the crime, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s IC3 team or to the Federal Trade Commission.
And while I am recommending caution and the need to protect yourself, I do of course wish you all a happy, healthy and ‘digitally’ safe Valentine’s Day.