The internet is the most popular way people meet their spouse these days. Nearly 20 percent of brides surveyed met their partner through online dating or social media, which outranks meeting through friends (17 percent), college (15 percent), or work (12 percent).
But there is a potential dark side to making an online love connection—falling for a romance scam.
A romance scam is a fraud scheme in which a con artist builds trust through an online romantic relationship in order to extract money from the victim. These schemes are particularly prevalent this time of year, and the FBI warns anyone searching for online romance–or currently involved in an online relationship–to stay vigilant.
The FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center (IC3) had over 15,000 reports of romance fraud, also called confidence fraud, in 2017, with total losses of approximately $210 million. Romance scams have increased over the years, possibly because con artists are able to learn so much personal information about their potential “marks” through social media and online dating sites.
Anyone Can Become a Victim
The FBI reports that victims are often both educated and computer literate. Scammers usually present a very compelling excuse for needing money quickly, such a short-term loan to finish a project or solve an emergency overseas. Or, perhaps more frightening, some con artists convince victims to send suggestive photos or videos and later blackmail the victim by threatening to post the content publicly.
The consequences of romance scams can be both heartbreaking and costly.
One woman reluctantly agreed to transfer more than $24,000 to an online love interest who claimed he was working on an oil rig and couldn’t pay his taxes. (She tried to cancel the payment once she realized the scam, but was unable to recover the money.) Another victim who came forward with her story in order to help educate others admitted that over the course of two years, she had given $1 million to a man she had met online.
Real Romance or Con Artist? 6 Red Flags to Watch For
There is no exact formula for avoiding a romance scam, but some common warning signs may indicate that a person you met online isn’t exactly who they say they are.
- Avoids Meeting in Person – Romance scammers often come up with reasons why they can’t meet in person, such as working in construction on a project overseas. They may even commit to meeting in person, but then give an excuse why it can’t happen.
- Quickly Asks to Communicate Outside of the Dating App or Social Site – Scammers sometimes want to leave the dating site soon after connecting and asks to continue the conversation through email or other direct means.
- Has a Suspicious Online Profile – Scammers may have inconsistencies in their online dating or social media accounts, such as very few photos, photos all posted in the same date range, few comments or follows, key information that is missing, or obvious grammatical errors.
- Tries to Isolate You from Friends or Family – Scammers often try to distance their victims from family and friends who may ask questions, and they may ask to keep the relationship a secret.
- Requests Inappropriate Photos – Beware if the individual requests inappropriate photos that could be used later to extort you.
- Requests Money or Favors – The first sign of a scam may be that your love interest asks for money, but be aware that asking for funds can take other forms. Scammers may ask for a loan that they promise to pay back quickly or ask you to put funds on a gift card or cash card.
Stealing a U.S. Soldier’s Identity to Commit a Romance Scam
Here’s one more warning sign of a romance scam—someone you meet online who claims to be a deployed U.S. Soldier and asks for money.
In one particularly distasteful form of romance scam, con artists take on the persona of a current or former U.S. Soldier–stealing an actual Soldier’s name and photos to create a phony profile. The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) reports that they receive hundreds of calls per month from victims who were scammed by someone impersonating a U.S. Soldier online.
The scammers might claim to be a service member who can’t access an account because they are overseas. However, the Army’s Criminal Investigative Service (CIS) says that deployed service members never have to pay to go on leave, communicate with their family and friends, or pay for housing or food.
Better Protect Yourself, Your Family and Friends from Romance Scams
With some common sense and a few best practices for navigating online relationships, you can better protect yourself and your loved ones against romance scams.
- Take It Slow – Both the FBI and the FTC advise anyone who meets a love interest online or uses online dating sites to take it slow. Con artists typically want to rush you—their intention is to quickly establish a relationship and gain your trust.
- Never Send Money to Someone You Don’t Know Personally – Never wire money, put funds on a gift card or cash reload card, or send cash to someone you haven’t met personally. Don’t believe promises that you will be repaid, and don’t give anyone your bank details on the premise that they want to “store” money in your account.
- Do Your Research – Social media or dating profiles may be fake, so it is advised to look up the individual’s name in Google or other search engine. You can also upload a photo and do a Google image search to see if the same photo is being used other places online, as some scammers are known to use the same photos again and again.
- Pay Attention to What You Post – Be careful what you post, as scammers may use that information against you. Even if you use only the most reputable online dating sites and social media networks, assume that con artists are trolling there too.
- Get a Second Opinion – Ask a trusted family member or friend for a second opinion on your new admirer. The most vulnerable victims are those who are isolated.
- Meet in Person – If you are in a romantic relationship, they should want to meet you in person. Use common sense as well as safety precautions for meeting an online connection in person.