“I fell in love with him and he also claimed to feel the same way for me,” said a victim of a romance scam, who requested anonymity. They met a man called “Bob” on Facebook, who claimed to be in South Africa working for the military.
After talking for some time, Bob said he wanted to visit the victim, who lives in the United States. Sure enough, he started asking for money: “He told me he had some trouble with his bank card not working in South Africa and couldn’t get funds to pay for his flight,” anonymous said. “He asked if I could send the money to pay for his [flight] and other things.”
The victim, like so many others, sent money to the grifter. Romance scams are a multimillion dollar problem, and it appears to be only getting worse. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), people reportedly lost $547 million from romance scams(Opens in a new tab) in 2021, an 80 percent jump from the year prior. But what exactly are romance scams, and how can you avoid them?
What are romance scams?
Romance scams(Opens in a new tab) are also called confidence scams because they require the scammer gaining the victim’s trust. They’re a form of social manipulation where scammers often create fake profiles on dating or social media platforms to start talking to victims and get them emotionally attached, said trial lawyer and partner at The Clark Law Office(Opens in a new tab) David Clark.
Scammers often target people who are vulnerable — say if they’re elderly or recently divorced or widowed. However, “it’s important to remember that these scams can happen to anyone, regardless of their level of financial knowledge,” said Tommy Gallagher, a former investment banker and the founder of Top Mobile Banks(Opens in a new tab), a site dedicated to digital banking.
Once they gain victims’ trust, scammers will start asking for money. They’ll come up with excuses like they have a medical emergency, or even that they want to visit the victim, just like Bob did. When the victim starts sending money, the scammer will demand more and more until they’re financially drained, said Clark.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the victim Mashable spoke to: “Every day, he [brought] up one issue or the other, demanding for more money that I ran out of money and went into debt,” they said. “When he realized I had no money left, he stopped replying to my messages and stopped taking my calls.” That’s when it dawned on them that Bob was a scammer.
“It typically takes a significant loss of money before victims notice things to be wrong and resist.”
“When it comes to matters of the heart, even the most rational of individuals can throw caution to the wind,” said Gallagher.
People may fall for romance scams because grifters meet their emotional needs, commented licensed therapist and vice president of marketing at Divorce Answers(Opens in a new tab), Lauren Cook-McKay. Scammers master what victims want to hear: promises of love, compliments, messages of empathy and compassion.
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“In fact, it typically takes a significant loss of money before victims notice things to be wrong and resist,” Cook-McKay said. “This is because when our emotional needs are being met, we’re willing to look past the negative in an attempt to preserve that source of emotional support.”
There are multiple types of romance scams, according to Clark:
Military scam, when the scammer pretends to be a member of the military — like Bob.
Oil rig scam, when they pretend to work as an oil rigger.
Exchanging intimate media, when the scammer gets the victim to send nude photo or video to use them for blackmail.
“But no matter what type of romance scam it is,” Clark said, “the scammer will always make excuses to avoid their victim, such as they’re too far away and can’t meet with the victim or avoid video calls.”
How can I avoid romance scams?
Be cautious when meeting online, and be skeptical of anyone who asks for personal information or money too soon, said Gallagher. Never give money to someone you haven’t met in person, and never share details like bank account numbers or your Social Security number.
Some dating apps, like Tinder, have verification features where users can prove they are who they say they are. Tinder and other Match Group dating apps have even started rolling out features to help people sniff out scammers. In the UK, Match and OurTime partnered up for a similar campaign with the City of London Police and reporting center Action Fraud.
If you’re using a service without verification or your match is unverified, you can do a reverse image search. Clark recommends doing this on Google or a site called Social Catfish(Opens in a new tab).
You can also stop talking to someone who refuses to meet in-person or on video; it’s a major red flag.
Ask questions pertaining to their identity, or ask for proof. If they say they’re in the military, for example, ask to see their military ID card. “They can also ask the person what their MOS [military occupation specialty code] is. The MOS identifies the person’s job title,” Clark said. “They can also ask questions about the military culture, such as basic training or their favorite MRE [Meal, Ready-to-Eat] treat.”
If you’ve already given a scammer money, contact your bank and credit card companies and let them know what happened, Gallagher said. You can report them to the dating site you met them on, and report them to the FTC(Opens in a new tab) as well.
Beyond researching your matches and calling out scammers, Cook-McKay said to “stop falling in love with being in love.” Learn how to meet your own emotional needs and validate yourself, so you don’t turn to others; seek out the help of a mental health professional if needed.
Most importantly, Gallagher said, don’t be ashamed to reach out to friends and family for support. You’re not alone. “By being aware of the dangers and taking the necessary precautions,” he said, “we can all protect ourselves and our loved ones from the heartless actions of these scammers.”