There’s big money in fake love. Over the years, romance scammers have preyed upon the lonely and vulnerable to steal hundreds of millions of dollars – likely racking up into the billions.
Such scams usually sees a criminal masquerading as someone else online, often on dating sites, to gain a victim’s confidence. Once trust – or perhaps love, on the part of the victim – is established, the scammer asks for cash.
According to recent Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) figures, romance scammers stole $475m from unsuspecting victims in 2019.
While the FTC puts this figure at $201m, one thing is clear: romance scams are at an all-time high.
And as ESET cybersecurity specialist Jake Moore points out, the real figure could be far higher than the statistics suggest.
“Romance scams are huge but still we only hear about the tip of the iceberg as few people want to let everyone know they’ve been scammed in this way,” he tells Verdict.
“But people shouldn’t be embarrassed as fraudsters are convincing storytellers. These criminals are very good at what they do and can manipulate their victims into sending money after gaining their trust rapidly.”
Valentine’s Day, and the period surrounding it, is an obvious target for romance scammers. Research by ESET, a Slovakian internet security firm, claims that 52% of singletons are more likely to fall for romance scams at this time of year.
Although some may find it difficult to understand why you would transfer money to someone you’ve never met, Agari senior threat researcher Ronnie Tokazowski says there are a “lot more moving parts than people realise”.
“While we may be quick to assume that victims are aware of their actions, our research shows that this is quite the opposite,” Tokazowski tells Verdict.
Agari, which specialises in email security, has previously uncovered a romance scam group dubbed ‘Scarlet Widow’. The Nigerian crime ring specifically targeted dating sites for the disabled and divorced.
“Victims truly think they are in an actual relationship, and in many cases are able to repeat the fake facts from scammers back to law enforcement,” says Tokazowski.
“With law enforcement getting partial stories from victims who think they are actually in a relationship doing business transactions for a spouse, it becomes extremely difficult to track and cluster this activity.”
How to spot romance scams
Despite the prevalence of these scams, there are telltale signs that can give them away. The FTC notes that scammers will often say they are living in a different country, which makes it easier to put off meeting face to face. It also gives the scammer an opportunity to ask for money for a plane ticket to ‘visit’ their victim.
“They will usually mention money problems at some point or mention debt collectors,” says Moore. “Plus they will put off meeting up by coming up with a colourful selection of excuses.”
If you have suspicions about an online relationship, talking to friends and family about it can provide a more objective opinion.
“Scammers use romance victims for different things, including purchasing gift cards, cashing fraudulent checks, and laundering funds, always promising that the transactions are legitimate,” adds Tokazowski.
“Victims are told multiple different stories about the source of the money, such as paying legal or business fees for something.”
Moore recommends carrying out background checks to verify the identity of someone met online, which is something just 29% of Brits do, according to ESET’s research.
“I suggest people search online for the names of people and then do a reverse Google image search to see if their profile photo features anywhere else,” he says.
Those that suspect they are the victim of a romance scam should file a complaint at IC3.gov, says Tokazowski.
“Finally it goes without saying, however confident you may feel talking to them, never send money to anyone you haven’t met in person,” adds Moore.