Romance Scams: A Fake, Costly Love Affair
Online dating sites and other convenient options have made it easier than ever to find "find love" no matter where your sweetheart might be in the world. There's just one problem: thanks to the prevalence of online dating sites and other online opportunities for romance, there has also been an increase in the ready availability of romance scams. It's bad enough to discover that the so-called love of your life doesn't return your affections. It's worse when you discover that they've scammed you in the process. Romance scams can leave devastation in your wake--and knowing how to avoid identity fraud while you're exploring the romantic options left open to you can help you protect yourself.
By the Numbers
If you're afraid you've already been duped, you're not alone. Romance fraud ranks number one in total reported losses among types of fraud. An estimated $143 million was reported lost to romance scams in 2018, with each victim reporting an average of $2,600 lost to the scam. The number of victims of romance scams has continued to rise in recent years. In 2012, less than 4,500 people reported being the victims of a romance scam. By 2016, that number was up to more than 14,500. The prevalence of romance scams will likely continue to increase as better technology becomes available, making it easier than ever for scammers to find, contact, and groom their victims.
What is a Romance Scam?
Romance scammers often appear on dating sites, seeking to take advantage of the lonely and unlucky in love. Often, they'll cast a wide net, building a "relationship" with anyone who responds to their profile. Others will take the time to go after specific targets: individuals who appear wealthy, or who they think might be willing to offer them everything they've ever wanted.
Very quickly, the scammer will appear to be your dream come true. They'll love the same things you love, laugh at all your jokes, and have just the right elements to convince you that they're the absolute love of your life. Then comes the punchline: "I need money." There are plenty of excuses that come down the line, each just as plausible as the last.
"I want to come visit you, but I can't afford it." The love of your life lives across the country. Plane tickets are expensive, and they just can't afford it--but they're desperate to come meet you! Your busy schedule might not allow you to go to them, but they're willing to come to you--if you'll just send them the money for the tickets.
"I can't afford to pay my rent this month. I don't know what happened, but I just got overdrawn, and my landlord is going to kick me out in just a couple of days if I don't come up with the money from somewhere." The scammer will strike just the right note to draw your pity, convincing you that they're in dire straits. Of course, you can afford to send them a little help--and why wouldn't you? This is the person you've fallen in love with!
"I have to have major surgery, but they want me to pay for it up front, and I can't afford it." Ah, the true sob story. You don't want your beloved to die for lack of treatment, so you hurry to write a check or transfer the funds as soon as possible.
"My car broke down. I was going to drive out to see you, but I can't even afford to fix it." Or they can't afford to get to work. Of course, there's no readily accessible public transportation in their area; and you'd love to help your true love out of a bind, right?
Unfortunately, once you send the money, nothing changes. The scammer may vanish altogether, especially if they've convinced you to send them money for a plane ticket or a trip to see you. On the other hand, if they've used another story, they might continue stringing you along for as long as they can. After all, they don't want to give up access to your wallet!
Still other scammers will use a trick as old as time. They won't send you a sob story or insist that they need immediate funds to come visit you or to handle a problem. Instead, they'll let you know that they'd very much like a series of expensive gifts--gifts that, in general, aren't particularly recognizable, so they can turn around and sell them immediately. After all, if you love them, you'll send it to them, right? These types of scammers will likely stay in your life as long as the gifts keep coming, but beware: they're unlikely to make face-to-face connections unless they absolutely have to, and they certainly aren't interested in uprooting their life to come join it with yours.
Signs of a Romance Scam
Is this your happily ever after, or are you about to become the victim of a romance scam? While it can be difficult to tell the difference, you may quickly discover that there are several common signs that could indicate a potential romance scam--and avoiding them can help you stay safer.
Your connection appears to fall in love with you very quickly. Within a few short messages back and forth, they're already professing to have "fallen in love with you." You should definitely see red flags if you've been talking for less than a month or if your conversations have been relatively shallow and infrequent. Love typically takes time to develop--and it's hard to claim "love at first sight" over the internet.
Their messages are vague, unclear, or dismissive. You wouldn't think that they were that interested in you if it weren't for ongoing professions of love; or perhaps they're deliberately vague about themselves, refusing to fill in the personal details that usually come out as you get to know someone.
You notice ongoing grammar and spelling errors--beyond the norm. While not everyone with a poor grasp of English grammar is automatically a scammer, the more outrageous the mistakes, the better the odds that you've encountered a scammer instead of a genuine love interest.
They're desperate for money. Many scammers will start with a vague mention that they might need some help. If you don't immediately jump to provide the money they've asked for, however, they'll become increasingly desperate, constantly messaging you with that sob story and insisting that they need your help as soon as possible.
They keep asking for more. You gave in and sent money once. For a little while, they were very grateful. Within just a little while, however, the scammer will be right back at it, insisting they just need "a little more" to get back on their feet, to get to you, or to handle another issue that's cropped up.
They make excuses for why they can't meet. There's always a reason why this isn't the ideal time--but the real reason is that they have no real interest in meeting you in person.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
With so many scammers out there, even jumping in and trying the world of online dating can be even more daunting than ever. There are steps you can take to minimize your risk in spite of online dating opportunities.
Keep your private information private. Your bank account, social security number, and other key information should remain yours and yours alone. Never share that information with someone that you're dating, whether you're dating in person or over the internet.
Stay skeptical. Sure, it's true love--but that doesn't mean that you have to trust them absolutely. Look for proof of any outrageous claims. Want to see your beloved in person for the first time? If they can't afford to make the trip and they ask you to pay for them, don’t be so quick to believe that they’ll use your money to travel. Hear that they're short on rent money? Look up their address and find out how to contact the landlord directly. Simply exercising a healthy degree of skepticism can help keep you safer in the world of online dating.
Take it slow. Take the time to get to know someone before jumping into an all-out relationship with them. Don't assume that you can fall in love within a matter of days or a couple of weeks, especially if you're unable to meet in person. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Be careful what you post online. This is particularly necessary if you have money, which can make you a more attractive victim for a scam. Avoid posts that indicate wealth or that give too much personal information. This can make it more difficult for a scammer to figure out exactly what you want, and therefore more difficult for them to create a persona you'll be sure to fall for.
If you believe that you've been a victim of a romance scam, take comfort in the fact that many of them have gone before you. With these steps, however, you can recognize a scam before it gets out of hand, and make sure that you know how to protect yourself online.