Many people have been finding love online, but others have not been so fortunate. In fact, romance scams actually cost Americans more money than any other kind of internet fraud. Nearly 15,000 people were conned out of more than $230 million in 2016, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And those figures underestimate the severity of the problem because it is believed only 15% of fraud victims report the crimes.
Nearly 15,000 people were conned out of more than $230 million in 2016.
You may think this could never happen to you but young and old alike have been victims of a "sweetheart scammer"—a criminal who preys on lonely hearts to steal their personal information and swindle them financially.
How Do Romance Scams Work?
A romance scam typically works like this: The criminal will set up an account on a dating site with fake information and photos, which of course are of someone who looks inviting, trusting, and attractive. The profile seems too good to be true actually. They reach out to several candidates and try to start an online relationship.
Once the target reciprocates and trust has been established, the scam usually escalates to the thief's unveiling of a problem involving money. Typical scenarios include the request for funds to be able to travel to meet you in-person or to help the thieve's sick relative.
Unfortunately, seniors are the primary targets for romance scams, since they often spend more time alone as they age.
How Can You Protect Yourself From Romance Scams?
You can protect yourself from these fraudsters by doing the following:
- Be a tease. There's no need to post all of your information online. Withhold personally identifiable information such as your hometown, home addresses, work specifics, phone numbers, educational background and information about your children. This is also a good idea on social media and any other online profiles in order to keep your personal information from falling into the wrong hands.
- A little research goes a long way. Compare the information the person provides during your conversations with the information that exists about them online to see if anything is conflicting. A person without any online presence is certainly a red flag. You can also search their images on Google to see if they are actually of another person.
- Get a second opinion. Friends and family will often have better radar than you will since they are not directly involved in the romance. Introduce the love interest to a friend and ask for their honest opinion.
- Hold on to your checkbook. Regardless of how legitimate the monetary need might seem, deny any requests for financial loans or assistance of any kind.
- Trust your gut. If something seems fishy or too good to be true, it probably is. Trust your instincts, and don't let yourself become love-blind.
Even though Valentine's season is one of the key times to be on high alert for possible sweetheart scams, it's important to realize this is a year-round issue. The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) confirms that they receive calls from people who have been swindled by sweetheart scammers throughout the year.
"With Valentine's Day around the corner, we are reminded that this holiday isn't always chocolate and roses for everyone," says Eva Velasquez, president of ITRC. "While sweetheart scammers definitely operate all year long, they are particularly noticeable at a time when everyone wants to celebrate romance. These scams are a double whammy for the victim because they are affected both fiscally and emotionally. It's important to remember to always make financial decisions with your head and not your heart."
What To Do If You're a Victim
The most important thing to do if you're a victim of a sweetheart scam is to cut off communication with your scammer immediately. And don't be ashamed to ask for help; there's no reason to be embarrassed. If you are concerned or feel you have been a victim of fraud, you can:
- Contact ITRC for support.
- Visit romancescams.org, an online dating watchdog site, and support group.
- If you have had money stolen then you should report the scammer to the website where the scammer found you, the FTC, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, and your state Attorney General.
And we're always here at Ask Experian to provide you more resources on identity theft protection and tips for dealing with fraud.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on January 29, 2018, and has been updated.