During the 2020 pandemic, people throughout the globe were struggling with detachment from their family, friends, and coworkers. In search of a connection with another human being, it should be no surprise that more than a few people would fall victim to online romance scams. However, in a shocking report by the Federal Trade Commission, losses due to romance scams increased by 50%. Romance scams have dominated the top position on the FTC’s list of fraud scams. More money is lost annually to romance scams than any other type of fraud in the United States. Since 2016, reports of romance scams have tripled, and the total dollar amounts lost have quadrupled. Given this alarming spike in numbers, it’s worth refreshing your knowledge on how these romance scams work and who is at risk for being a target.
Most are familiar with the timeline of an online romance scam. News stories and talk show segments about lonely people being “catfished” by online scammers are everywhere, and the number of these incidents appears to be on the rise. The reason for this rise in romance scams can be two-fold. To begin, the isolation of the pandemic in efforts to flatting the proverbial curve left many individuals with a desire to reach out and connect with another human being online. The internet is where romance scams thrive, and users who are attempting to scrape the bottom of the barrel of human interaction can be easy targets for criminals. In the same vein, following the COVID-19 restrictions that kept many Americans completely isolated from the outside world initiated an increase in internet usage. Without routine, in-person interactions with friends, family, and coworkers, individuals who were not habitual internet or social media users—or even internet literate—flocked to the world wide web in search of some form of human connection.
This perfect storm of circumstances created a perfect hunting ground for internet scammers to hook promising marks who could fill their virtual pocketbooks with cash and other assets. In the days before Facebook, online romance scams typically started on internet forums or in chatrooms. Now, scammers have fully adapted to the ways and language of social media. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat dominating the way we communicate, it’s easier than ever to bilk someone out of their hard-earned money in an online romance scam.
It is not a matter of if, but when these criminals will ask for money, and the longer you look at case studies for these online romance scams, the more colorful the reasons get. Sometimes the scammer claims they need funds to keep their phone or internet service connected—and therefore keep them connected to their mark. Sometimes the scammer will claim they need money to get out of a perilous situation so they can allegedly return to the United States and finally meet up with the mark in person. Regardless of the reason, there are almost always suspicious methods of getting this money to the scammer, such as wiring the money to another person whose name does not match the scammer’s persona. Or perhaps the money must be sent to a bank account in an unexpected part of the world.
Even more staggering is that the FTC’s data on the rise in online romance scams indicates that no age group is immune to these operations. The number of online romance scams went up in all age brackets of potential victims. In fact, according to the FTC, people between the ages of 20 and 29 saw the biggest increase in being targeted, while people 70 and older were reporting the highest losses in the neighborhood of $10,000. With so much at stake in online dating, it’s imperative that you know how to protect yourself from these scammers. Here are the FTC’s tips for avoiding online romance scams:
- Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person – even if they send you money first.
- Talk to someone you trust about this new love interest. It can be easy to miss things that don’t add up. So pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
- Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers.
- Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures. If they’re associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.
- Learn more at ftc.gov/romancescams.