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A romance scam is when a scammer uses the illusion of a romantic relationship to con their victim out of money or identifying information. Fraudsters assume fake identities that are tailor-made to appeal to unassuming victims.
These crimes have surged in recent years, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In 2022 alone, the FTC received reports of nearly 70,000 consumers losing $1.3 billion to romance scams. The median loss reported by each victim is $4,400, up from $2,400 in 2021. While anyone can fall victim, seniors and the recently widowed are most often targeted since they're viewed as more lonely and vulnerable, and with potentially more access to money.
What Is a Romance Scam?
Picture this: You're heartbroken after a messy divorce and hoping for another shot at love with no luck, when a handsome man messages you out of the blue on Facebook. He showers you with compliments, shares interests and says all the right things. You start talking often, and soon, you're falling for him.
But every time you ask to video call or meet in person, he has an excuse, usually that his career keeps him far away. One day, he has a desperate plea. His mom is sick in the hospital, and he can't afford the hospital bills. He says you can save her life if you could just wire him $4,000, and he promises to pay you back. You see a future together and don't want to appear unsupportive, so you reluctantly dip into your savings and wire him the money. He then disappears.
This is a heartbreaking and financially devastating example of a typical romance scam—the most common type of fraud reported to the FTC.
Scammers used to mainly use dating apps to target victims, but it's now more common for them to find and message victims on social media. They create accounts using fake information and photos, creating a persona of someone who looks inviting, trusting and attractive. They reach out to several candidates, trying to start an online relationship. The more desperate and lonely someone seems, the better.
Once the target reciprocates and trust is established, the scam usually escalates to the thief's unveiling of a problem involving money. Eventually, they request funds; they might claim it's to be able to travel to meet you in person or to help their sick relative or jailed friend.
Unfortunately, those who give money are usually quickly ghosted, cruelly left heartbroken—and possibly broke.
How to Spot Romance Scams
You may think this could never happen to you, especially if you are younger, since seniors are the typical target. But young and old alike have been victims of a "sweetheart scammer" who preys on lonely hearts to steal their personal information and swindle them financially.
Here are some common red flags:
- Requesting financial assistance: In the FTC's 2022 data, the most common romance scam lie—featured in nearly one quarter of reports—is a fake sob story requesting money. The scammer claims they or a loved one is sick, hurt or in jail and needs money, or they need money to finally meet you in person. It's especially a red flag if they ask to be paid via cryptocurrency, bank wire or gift card.
- Moving too fast: Be skeptical of rapid escalation since scammers usually start professing love or talking about marriage quickly and before meeting in person.
- Avoiding a meeting: Romance scammers always have excuses for not meeting in person, the FTC reports, commonly claiming they're away on an oil rig or ship, or in the military.
- Offering to help you invest: A newer tactic is for scammers to seem generous by offering investment advice. For example, they'll teach you how to be a savvy cryptocurrency investor like them, but the money you supposedly invest goes to them.
- Switching to another platform: If you met on a dating or social media app, but the person tries to move your conversation to a private messaging service like WhatsApp or Telegram, take notice. This reduces risk for them but makes you more vulnerable.
- Asking for explicit photos: Run the other direction if someone you've never met in person asks you to send racy photos. Romance scammers have increasingly committed "sextortion," where they ask the victim to send explicit photos. Then, they extort the victim to pay up, threatening to otherwise share the photos with your social media contacts.
How to Avoid Romance Scams
You can reduce your chances of becoming a victim of a romance scam by following these proven tactics.
- Reduce how much you share online. When posting on social media, dating sites or other online profiles, be cautious about how much personal information you reveal. Withhold personally identifiable information such as your hometown, home address, work specifics, phone numbers, educational background and information about your children. Scammers often use these personal details to try to appear like your perfect match.
- Tighten up online privacy. Also consider adjusting your privacy settings on social media. Remain vigilant about who you accept as friends online; it's wise to decline requests from strangers.
- Do your research. Romance scammers typically assume the identity of a real person or use photos they found online. Do a little sleuthing on your new love interest. Compare information they provide with what you can find online to see if anything conflicts (or if they have no online presence, which is also a red flag). Do a reverse image search of the photos they use to reveal if they're using someone else's photos.
- Request to meet. Require an in-person meeting before things get serious (and certainly before giving them any resources). It may require patience if the person lives far away, but it's a red flag if they continuously have excuses to avoid meeting. If you do meet someone in person for the first time, meet in public and share your location with a loved one.
- Never send money or sensitive information. Regardless of how legitimate or heartbreaking they might seem, deny requests for financial loans or assistance of any kind, especially if it's someone you've never met in person. Also avoid sharing your Social Security number, bank account or credit card numbers and any other sensitive details with a new love interest since it can lead to identity theft.
- Trust your gut. If something seems fishy or too good to be true, it probably is. Trust your instincts; don't let yourself become love-blind. Consider asking friends or family for a second opinion. If this is someone you've met in person, introduce them to a trusted person and ask for honest feedback.
Help for Victims of Romance Scams
If you've found yourself the victim of a romance scam, take these steps as soon as possible:
- Cut off contact. Once you notice suspicious behavior or realize you've been scammed, immediately stop responding to this person.
- File a police report. Contact your local law enforcement office to file a report so they can investigate and try to apprehend the fraudster.
- Try to get your money back. Contact the company or your bank associated with your payment method (such as a gift card, wire transfer, cryptocurrency, credit or debit card). Inform them you were scammed and sent payment, and ask if they can refund you. It may not be possible, but it's worth trying.
- Notify the FTC. Submit a fraud complaint with the FTC, since this government agency collects data and spreads awareness on the latest scams. While the FTC can't directly help you, it investigates and shares information with law enforcement agencies. You can also file a report with the FBI since they, too, collect data and investigate scams.
- Report the account. If you encountered a potential or confirmed scammer through an online dating or social media app, protect others by reporting the profile to the company.
If you've given the fraudsters your personal information, consider taking extra steps to protect your finances. You have the right to place a fraud alert or security freeze with the three national consumer credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) to help protect against scammers opening fraudulent credit accounts in your name.
Stay Vigilant for Identity Theft
If, in addition to giving a romance scammer money, you also shared private information like your Social Security number, you're at risk of identity theft. The criminal could open accounts and spend money or claim government benefits in your name. If you believe your identity is at risk, the FTC urges reporting it on their website and receiving a recovery plan to help you minimize the damage to your identity.
An identity monitoring service might also be able to help. Experian IdentityWorksSM monitors your identity and privacy online, along with your credit report, notifying you of any changes and offering fraud support.