Romance scams increase over 50% during pandemic, $304 million lost in 2020

We first discussed romance scams on this blog in 2017.  That year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, romance scam victims reported losses of $87 million nationwide.

Since then, the amount of reports made to the FTC have increased 30% year over year.  And last year, romance scams saw the biggest single jump since 2016: a 50% increase in the number of reports made AND over $100 million more swindled from victims than in 2019.

The explanation for this spike is simple: the pandemic has created a massive pool of lonely, isolated potential victims.

Romance scams occur on nearly every social and dating platform online.  In a technique commonly called “catfishing” online, a scammer will create an appealing fake identity on a platform to lure in victims seeking romantic partners or companions.  The romantic scammer will often steal images, names, and personal details of real people on websites like Facebook to create their own fake profile, tailoring the profile to attract an ideal victim.  Frequently, this victim is a senior, a widow or widower, a divorcee, or representative of a chronically isolated group.

Once a victim is identified, the scammer will begin the process of “love-bombing” the target.  Love-bombing is a strategy used by both scammers and abusers to get their victims hooked on the attention they’re receiving and far less likely to walk away or refuse requests.  During the love-bombing stage, the scammer will lavish compliments, gifts, and praise on the victim, ultimately priming them to accept multiple asks and increasingly suspicious behavior.

When the scammer knows the target is fully invested in the “relationship,” that’s when the scam starts.  The scammer will pressure the victim for money for all sorts of reasons, using the affinity the victim has for them as a weapon.  All the while, the scammer will find no shortage of reasons why they can’t ever meet their victim or see their victim despite near constant promises to do so. 

These scams can go on for months and years with virtually no detection.  And due to the deeply personal nature of the scam, victims are far less likely to report them or talk about them with family and friends than other types of scams.

Where previously a scammer may have had to be choosy with his victims, now there are targets everywhere.  We have been separated from our friends, families, and loved ones, prohibited from going to public places to socialize, and driven out of our workplaces for fear of spreading COVID-19.  Our opportunities for social contact of any kind outside of our immediate household have been nonexistent for a year.

The only way most of us can engage in any kind of safe socializing is digitally: through our phones, through webcams, and through text.  Those of us who never depended heavily on the internet for human contact have had to become comfortable with online interaction.  These new social app users may not be vigilant or familiar with how rampant scammers run on these apps.

At the same time, the pandemic has given scammers a tool kit of excuses to ask victims for money and avoid ever interacting with them beyond calls and messages:

“I lost my job.  I need you to help me get by.”

“My hours have been cut.  I can’t earn enough money to come and see you.”

“I can’t come see you.  I may have been exposed to COVID-19.”

“If you care about me, you’ll send me money to get treatment for the virus.”

“My family member is sick and I don’t have the money to take care of them.”

“No, we can’t meet.  I’m caring for an at-risk family member.”

In this environment, we can’t question a potential partner’s unwillingness to engage with us and provide proof they want progress in a relationship as easily.  We are also far less likely to be suspicious of someone we don’t know reaching out to us on an app—it’s the only way to safely meet new people right now.

There’s also the reality that none of us are exactly handling this sudden severe isolation very well.  Even self-identified introverts are learning how much of a difference there is between low contact and NO contact.  We are all suffering for lack of seeing other people.  That suffering makes us extremely vulnerable.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with finding your future partner online.  Online dating and social apps are increasingly responsible for long-term successful unions and marriages.  We’ve come a long way since the dawn of the internet when meeting A Stranger online was something to hide or feel ashamed of.  As we age, maintaining the friendships we already have—let alone cultivating brand new friendships—is easier said than done.  In a perfect world, online socializing would be the greatest thing for seniors dealing with loneliness.

But as it stands, this world is far from perfect.  And with love being the strongest intoxicant known to man, the romance scam is possibly the perfect way to swindle someone out of their life savings.

The hardest part of avoiding this scam—like other affinity-style scams—is not allowing your emotions to steamroll your common sense.  Stripped of the emotional aspects, this scam is actually incredibly obvious and should be easy to poke holes through.

The Telltale Signs of a Romance Scammer

Love at first click.  As much as we like a Romeo and Juliet narrative, it’s rarely the reality of falling in love.  Attraction may be instant, but love is usually something we cultivate over time with another person.  This is NOT the case when you’re dealing with a romance scammer.  Romance scammers typically communicate with MULTIPLE victims at a time, so they’re not interested in investing more time than they need to in gaining your trust.  The hallmark of a romance scammer is the whirlwind nature of the initial meeting to the claims they are hopelessly in love.  If you pump the brakes on the fantasy just long enough to look at the timeline of events with a level head, you’ll see someone who claimed to be your soul mate before they knew anything of substance about you.

You’re smothering me.  In the first stage of a relationship, it is entirely normal for two people to be joined at the hip.  But there’s attached and then there’s attached.  When a romance scammer sees a fish on the line, they want to get it out of the water as fast as possible.  That means they’ll push you to delete all of your dating profiles (so only THEY have access to you—and your bank account) and they’ll often contact you obsessively.  The constant contact is meant to keep you engaged at all times and thinking of almost nothing else but them.  Not only is this part of the love-bombing tactic, but it also eliminates the possibility that you’ll have quiet time to consider how bizarre the relationship is or talk to other people you know about it.  The goal is to get you completely dependent on them for all of your socialization and cut you off from other influences that might steer you away from the scam.  Texts will be constant.  Emails will be constant.  You might even receive phone calls multiple times a day.

Excuses, excuses.  Since romance scammers will conceal their identity completely during the scam, using fake photos, fake biographical information, and a fake location usually, they can’t exactly live up to their promises to come see you without blowing the scam.  The person you think you’re talking to almost NEVER looks like, sounds like, or is that person.  There will ALWAYS be an excuse when it comes to visiting you or even video chatting with you (“I don’t have a camera,” “I don’t have a webcam,” “I don’t have a computer”).  With a lot of these scams being operated outside of the country, the scammer might not even be willing to talk to you on the phone for fear of revealing a foreign accent.  They’ll absolutely PROMISE to come see you—they might even make plans with you to do so.  But they’ll cancel at the last minute every time: a broken car, an illness, trouble at home, a job opportunity, a wedding, a funeral, and ESPECIALLY not having money to do so (so they can ask you to send them that money, of course).  And don’t think you offering to visit THEM is going to change anything.  They’ll be out of town on all of those weekends.  Which is weird since they can’t ever seem to afford to go out of town to see you…

Boo-hoo-hoo.  Romance scammers use pity to steal their victims’ trust and money.  There isn’t a romance scammer in the world who doesn’t have a backstory more depressing than Les Misérables.  Everything bad in the world has happened to them and only them, and that’s why you should listen to all their problems and send them money.  These stories are meant to wear you out emotionally as much as they’re meant to convince you to send them cash.

Gimme, gimme, gimme.  If all else fails, this is the BIG one.  The goal of a romance scammer is to GET. YOUR.  MONEY.  It’s not to be your friend, get to know you, or talk to you.  All of those things are means to a financial end that will preferably come as fast as possible.  Expect the asks to start almost immediately.  They may be subtle or strictly implied (for example, “oh, I WISH I could come see you, but I just don’t have the money for a plane ticket right now…”), especially in the beginning.  But as the relationship goes on, the scammer can get downright cocky about pressuring you for cash.  Whether it’s constantly bringing up hardship to get you to feel sorry for them, asking you directly for help with a financial problem, or aggressively demanding or even extorting you for money, they WILL transition from love-bombing to money quickly.  Normal people don’t ask the people they’ve just started dating for money.  Normal people don’t lay their financial baggage on their partners right out of the gate.  Your cue to run for the hills is the FIRST time someone you’re casually dating asks you for your money.  This is NEVER appropriate behavior early in a relationship.

Catching a Romance Scammer

Even ticking all these scam checkboxes, you may not be prepared to believe the person you’ve grown to care about is a liar.  Again, this is EXACTLY why these scams are so effective: you don’t WANT to believe the person you love is tricking you.

No worries.  There are actionable ways you can verify the identity of your partner.  They may not be 100% effective on their own, but in most cases, these verification methods can reveal at least SOMETHING that doesn’t quite add up.

Scrutinize their social media profiles.  Since you’ll most likely be meeting this person on some kind of social media platform or dating app, you’ll have access to their fake profile (you can also ask to see any of their other profiles on different platforms).  There are some key things to look for that can tip you off to a fake account: a very new profile created date, an extremely low number of followers or friends, very little activity in terms of posts or interactions with other people, a bare bones profile with next to no pictures or personal information, and multiple accounts on different platforms that were all created on the same exact date.

Image search is your best friend.  In almost all cases of romance scamming, the scammer will be using profile pictures and photos stolen from someone else.  The images we put online include metadata (called EXIF data) that can be used almost like a fingerprint to identify copies of the image elsewhere online and lead you to the REAL person who posted the photos.  EXIF data CAN be stripped from an image (often scammers don’t bother to do it or aren’t consistent about stripping every photo they steal), and certain “secure” online communication platforms like Whatsapp automatically strip EXIF data on sent images (be suspicious of anyone who tries to move you from a very public communication platform to a “secure” platform right away for this reason).  But performing a reverse image search on each and every one of the images you have available to you to check for this data is your very first step in looking for fraud.  You can do this via Google Reverse Image Search or a variety of online tools specifically for finding stolen images and exposing catfish.  Should you locate your partner’s images in multiple places online with different names, locations, ages, and other inconsistent details.  You’ve got yourself a romance scammer.

 Ask for an updated photo.  Ask your would-be soul mate to take a self portrait just for you. …While holding a newspaper with today’s date on it.  Or holding a piece of paper with a code word you’ve specified on it.  If they’re not who they say they are (or hit you with he “oh, my phone camera isn’t working right now”), they won’t do this.  They’ll probably launch into a speech about how HURTFUL it is that you don’t trust them.  Yawn.

Romance scams are particularly alarming among other types of financial fraud for having the potentiality to escalate even further than simply robbing you of your savings.  Romance scammers are known to operate in large networks, and there are even cases of romance scams leading to victims getting involved in serious criminal activity.  Romance scam victims have been persuaded to money launder and even mule narcotics unknowingly for their scammers, resulting in serious criminal charges for the victims.

This is a scam that is not only really, really effective, but could lead to increasingly dangerous consequences for victims.  And in the COVID-19 world, these scams are growing in number and harder to resist.

Do NOT allow the fear of scams to ruin the safest way for you to communicate with your loved ones.  But do be very aware of how vulnerable we all are to these scams in the current day and how widespread they are.  If you are using online platforms to meet a new partner, don’t allow isolation to affect your judgment—anyone can be anyone on the World Wide Web.

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