Love is in the air, but so are romance scams, a cruel type of ruse that preys on the hearts of suspecting people.
While you may associate such scams with Valentine’s Day, the truth is that scammers are working around the clock and throughout the year to defraud you.
Romance Scams: What You Need To Know
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that romance scams perpetrated on social media accounted for the second-highest total of financial losses in the first half of 2023, right after investment scams.
“Half of people who said they lost money to an online romance scam said it began on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat,” the agency said in its report.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about romance scams, including how to avoid them and the red flags you need to look out for. We’ll get some tips from Clark, his team as well as some consumer advocate agencies.
What Is a Romance Scam?
A romance scam is one in which a criminal plays upon the heart of an innocent victim, oftentimes fostering a relationship over an extended period to gain affection and trust.
To gain the victim’s affection, the fraudster will develop a romance with the person by pretending to be someone else or even making up an entirely fake persona, which is also known in today’s vernacular as “catfishing.”
Once a romantic relationship has been established, the scammer manipulates the feelings of the victim to ask for or steal money from them.
What Are Some Types of Romance Scams?
A romance scam can take many forms as there are several different types and scenarios:
Military Romance Scams
Swindlers have been known to use images of soldiers or create fake online personas who purport to serve overseas.
AI-Created Dating Profiles
According to a news report, criminals are even using AI technology to create fake dating personas that interact with people online to steal their hearts – then their wallets.
A journalist at TV station KSL-TV in Salt Lake City was able to create a fake person online relatively easily.
“A Google search brought us to Canva, an online AI image generator,” the writer said. “There, we simply typed in ‘make the image of a single man’ and within seconds we had our AI-generated profile pic. Worked for women, too, of course. Some of the images are obviously not real including one that was much more akin to a cartoon character. But others were much more convincing.”
‘Nigerian Prince’ Romance Scam
Also known as the “Prince Charming” scam, the Nigerian Prince scam is perhaps one of the oldest online schemes out there. In one case prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), a Nigerian man running a criminal network of scammers targeted American women and tricked them out of millions of dollars over several years.
“Once he had successfully beguiled his target,” the DOJ said in a news release. “[He] began to manufacture phony emergencies, each of which required increasingly large amounts of money from his victims. He played upon each woman’s romantic feelings and vulnerabilities, manipulating them into wiring him money or shipping him laptop computers, tablets, and cell phones – equipment he told them he needed to complete his government mission.”
How Romance Scams Usually Work
Although there are several varieties, romance scams typically follow a similar script at some point, according to Consumer Action Center (CAC) director Lori Silverman, who says the CAC handles calls about romance scams all the time.
Lori says this is how the romance scam usually works: A woman or man meets someone on Facebook and they win their trust by saying that they served in the armed forces or something similar. At some point, the pretender ends up in dire straits and needs some money wired to him.
After some time the victim grows suspicious, refuses to send more money and tells the authorities. That’s how the scheme finally unravels — but by that time it’s usually too late, Lori says.
“I call these the loneliness scams,” Lori says, “because the person on the other side is seeking a relationship and wants to believe this is real.”
Sue Gatliff, assistant director of the CAC, says these types of scams not only take a toll on the victim but oftentimes their family members as well.
“We get calls from grown children about their parents saying, ‘How can we get them to stop this?’ or ‘How do we get them to believe it’s not real?’”
Warning Signs: How Can You Tell a Romance Scammer?
A romance scammer can be identified by their tactics. Here are some red flags we’ve identified:
- You’ve never met them in real life: “You have to remember that whoever you have this romance with, if you’ve never met them in person, that’s a sign,” Lori says.
- They solicit you for money: “If they’re asking for money that’s a big clue,” she says. “Especially if they all of the sudden say they need money to get to the U.S. or something like that.”
- You see very few pictures of them online or their social media profile is vague: Scammers may be pretending to be someone else and may not have a lot of images of the person they’re pretending to be. This is a major red flag.
- They are quick to profess their love for you: Oftentimes with very little prodding, a romance scammer will fall deeply in love with you, sight unseen.
- There’s always an excuse not to meet in person: He or she repeatedly promises to meet you in person but always seems to come up with an excuse to cancel.
How To Avoid Falling Victim To a Romance Scammer
There are some ways you can prevent or severely limit the financial damage caused by a romance scam, including having a credit freeze in place, which Clark highly recommends. Here are some other tips.
Meet in Person
Clark says the way to avoid a romance scammer is to meet in person and don’t accept any excuse not to.
“When you don’t get to meet someone in person – for every excuse in the world, including that they’re somewhere else in the world – know that you never, never, not ever fall for any pitch, any story about their mama needing an operation or whatever. You don’t fall for any of that.”
Never Give Money To Someone You Haven’t Seen
Just like you wouldn’t give your personal information to someone you don’t know, you definitely wouldn’t give money to someone whose identity you can’t confirm. And when they ask and you tell them no, they usually will back off, Clark says.
“When you say, ‘Gosh, that’s really too bad. I wish I had money but I don’t have any money to give you,’ they’ll drop you like a hot rock,” Clark says. But if they persist, that’s even more reasons not to give in.
“No money changes hands, period!” Clark says.
If They Seem Sketchy, Stop Communicating With them Immediately
If things just don’t seem to add up about what the other person is telling you, or you have reason to be suspicious, it’s best to end it.
Clark says he once helped a friend to identify a romance scammer who was playing with his emotions and was close to doing so with his bank account.
He told the friend, “You need to have no further contact with this person. This is not legit,” Clark says on his podcast. “Thank goodness he called me before he had given money.”
But what if you have sent money to a romance scammer? Here are some recourses you can take that could potentially get your money back.
How To Report a Romance Scammer
If you’ve fallen victim to a romance scammer or suspect that someone you’re dealing with online is potentially defrauding you, here are some steps to take, according to the FTC:
- Report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
- Notify the social media site or app where you met the scammer.
- You can also file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
To keep your heart and your wallet safe, “Look for the tell-tale signs,” Clark says.