What is a romance scam?

A romance scam is a situation in which a scammer typically creates a fake online dating profile, feigns romantic interest in an unsuspecting victim, and uses the manufactured feelings associated with the “relationship” to commit fraud. Fraudsters prey on people searching for a real human connection, and by gaining the trust of these individuals, get access to anything from bank accounts and credit cards, to passports and social security numbers. Scammers typically concoct a story about a fake crisis that requires money immediately, like a medical emergency, in order to bilk victims of thousands of dollars.

According to the FBI, romance scams are on the rise because they are lucrative and easy to commit. Scammers take advantage of people in a vulnerable position, and often victims are too embarrassed to come forward to report the crime. Though the Federal Trade Commission has quantified losses each year related to romance scams, it is believed that these losses are much higher, as many frauds continue to go unreported due to shame and embarrassment.

The alarming statistics

Romance scams cost Americans millions of dollars every year; according to the Federal Trade Commission, romance scams rank number one on total reported losses of all internet-facilitated crimes. In 2018, the Consumer Sentinel had more than 21,000 reports about romance scams, resulting in a total loss of approximately $143 million. The median individual loss to romance scams reported in 2018 was approximately $2,600; this is seven times higher than the median loss across all other fraud types. In 2019, romance scam related losses are up nearly 40% from 2018, with more than 25,000 consumers filing reports with the FTC, with losses totaling $201 million. Losses related to romance scams have increased to six times the amount of losses in 2015.

The age range of romance scam victims is wide; per the FTC, those between the ages of 40 to 69 reported losing money to romance scams at the highest rate, and more than twice the rate of victims in their 20s. Victims over 70 years of age reported the highest individual median losses at $10,000; according to The True Link Report on Elder Financial Abuse 2015, seniors lose approximately $36.48 billion each year in fraud related losses. The elderly are frequently targets of fraud due to many factors, including physical disabilities or other health related issues, a lack of technological knowledge or savvy, geographical separation between close family, and cognitive decline.

According to FBI data, 82% of romance scam victims are women, and women over fifty are defrauded out of the most money. Another FTC study found that individuals that have experienced a negative event in their lives in the preceding two years – events such as divorce, the death of a family member or close friend, a serious injury or illness in their family, or the loss of a job – were almost three times as likely to become a victim of fraud as compared to those who had not experienced a negative life event.

Online dating applications are a viable way to meet new people, but caution should always be used when interacting with someone new, especially when money is involved.

Warning signs and prevention

The following are common warning signs and ways to protect yourself from becoming a victim of a romance scam:

  • Do a reverse-image search of the individual you are allegedly conversing with online. If the images are associated with another name, the person you are communicating with has likely stolen these images to create a fake profile.
  • Do not send money to someone you have never actually met in person. Scammers will create an elaborate story as to why they cannot meet you in person; they are working abroad, they do not have enough money to make a trip to meet you, their job does not allow them to travel. Do not fall for these stories.
  • Again, do not send money to someone you have never actually met in person. If you are speaking to someone you have never met, and they request you send them money, especially through Western Union or Money Gram, or through gift cards, do not send the money. Scammers will ask you for money via wire, gift cards, or reloadable cards like MoneyPak or Vanilla Reload because they can receive the cash quickly and can use it anonymously.
  • Talk to a trusted friend or family member about the person you are communicating with; if they seem skeptical, they may be on to something. Do not allow yourself to be rushed in to a financial transaction by a stranger.
  • On the job related note, per the FTC, common jobs for romance scammers include oil riggers, military personnel, or international doctors. These all seem like legitimate forms of employment. Do your research before you buy into their employment story.
  • If you think you may have sent money to someone that is scamming you, contact your bank immediately to report the transactions.
  • If a potential romantic interest asks you for money, stop communicating with this person immediately. As soon as someone you have never met requests money from you, report it to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. You can also file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The comedian Henny Youngman once said, “You can’t buy love, but you can pay heavily for it.” No one is immune to being scammed, and it is important to be aware of red flags; if you think something may be a scam, it likely is a scam. Avoid having to literally pay for meeting a potential love interest.