In an online romance scam, a fraudster seeks to take advantage of a victim looking for love on a dating or social networking website by pretending to want a romantic relationship. The scammer’s goal is to obtain access to the victim’s financial or personal information and steal their money. While this year has been an especially bountiful one for romance scammers, as COVID has enabled them to prey on people’s loneliness and isolation to con them in greater numbers than in previous years, this scam is typically prevalent this time of year.
Increased isolation brought about by lockdowns, the need to quarantine, and social distancing has resulted in more people using the internet to look for love. Romance scams were way up in 2020 compared to 2019: the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received approximately 23,800 complaints for 2020 compared to approximately 19,500 for 2109, an increase of over 20%. 2020 financial losses amounted to approximately $605 million; 2019 losses were over $475 million. Many victims are too embarrassed and humiliated to file a complaint so actual losses are likely higher.
According to the FTC, a 2019 scam was the costliest reported, resulting in $201 million lost.
Romance scams typically target older people. A scammer, often purportedly overseas for military service or business, professes their love very early on. After winning the victim’s emotions and trust, they claim to have an emergency financial crisis and then ask for money urgently. Often, they request that the money be sent in an unusual manner, such as by gift cards. The money requests escalate over time. After the victim complies, their money and “romance” are gone. Because of the manner in which funds are sent it is often very difficult to trace the money and find the scammer.
To avoid falling victim to a romance scam, think before you act. Don’t rush into an online romantic relationship; as the FTC advises, slow down and talk to someone you trust before proceeding. Don’t send money to people you don’t know or haven’t met in person, including through intermediaries. Be cautious about sharing your personal and financial information. Keep copies of all communications.
If you think you’ve become involved with a scammer, report them to local law enforcement and regulators, the relevant financial institution (like your bank or, if you paid with a gift card, the company that issued the card (such as Amazon)), the site you met the scammer on, the FBI¬¬¬¬’s Internet Crime Complaint Center ( https://www.ic3.gov ), and the FTC ( https://ftc.gov/complaint ).¬
While many singles today meet future partners online and online dating can be a great way to meet people, predators lurk on dating and other sites. Be vigilant of your safety and personal information and look out for romance scams.
*The information contained in this column is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US, CIPP/E