This $1B Online Fraud Will Leave You Broke—and Brokenhearted

If you or someone you care about are looking for love online, be careful: Reports of sweetheart or romance scams are soaring.

It starts with an online, long-distance romance. A criminal, posing as an admirer, approaches you through a dating site, or reach out on social media. After they woo you, then comes the “ask.” Can you send money to help them out with a financial emergency?

The cover story can vary—maybe your honey says he’s a U.S. soldier overseas who needs money to fly home and meet you, or she’s a single mom who has an unexpected medical bill.

But sweetheart scams all boil down to the same con. Criminals posing as a love interest trick victims into sending cash using a non-reversible method, like wire transfer or gift card. In a new twist, some seduce the victim into acting as a “mule” to transport money or goods internationally.

Groups including the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Consumers League rank romance scams among the most common—and the most damaging—cons out there. A recent BBB report on the broad category of sweetheart scams estimates about 1 million Americans have become victims in recent years, to the tune of about $1 billion in losses.

"My God, these people need help,” says Steve Baker, a former Federal Trade Commission investigator and author of the BBB report. “The emotional devastation is worse than the money they lose.”

The FTC is another agency ringing the alarm bell. Last year, it received more than 21,000 reports about romance scams—more than twice as many as it had in 2015. Victims’ losses totaled $143 million, more than any other consumer fraud type in its database.

On a personal level, victims lost a median $2,600, about seven times more than any other fraud types, the agency says. And those may be the lucky ones. The National Consumers League reported even larger numbers, saying victims it heard from had average losses of $18,831.

It’s easier to fall victim than most people realize, says Abby Ellin, author of “Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married.” (As the title implies, Ellin was herself a victim of a lover with a double life.)

After all, at the beginning of a relationship, it’s only natural to hope you have met “The One.” That hope tricks victims into turning off their skeptical minds in favor of their optimistic hearts.

"[I] didn’t think that checking up on my beau was a loving way to kick off a relationship. So, it was all very confusing, navigating the terrain between being a cynical journalist and, well, a person,” she says in an interview with Grow. “The other problem was that his stories were so insane that they had to be true!"

Romance scams work particularly well because criminals often spend months, even years, grooming victims before the “ask.” Baker says he has seen criminals’ scripts that contain six months’ worth of prepared dialog. “These people have translators. They are very sophisticated,” he says.

The con artists’ efforts are highly organized. Baker, crediting cybersecurity expert Lawrence Baldwin of Mynetwatchman.com, says a small army of online scammers that’s 25,000 strong is constantly looking for marks. They lurk on dating services, but their efforts go much further. Many use fake Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to approach potential victims.

How to keep your heart and wallet intact

As you read this story, you probably can’t imagine falling for such a tale. But anyone suffering from loneliness is vulnerable. And really: Who hasn’t done something dumb for love?

Baker offers some straightforward advice to help you steer clear. “Anybody you can't meet in person within two weeks, 99 percent of the time, that’s really romance fraud,” he says.

Here are three other ways to protect yourself:

Avoid mixing love and money. An online love interest asking for money is a red flag, period. But certain asks should make you especially wary:

  • Wired funds. According to the BBB, a majority of people who lost money to a romance scam wired those funds; the next largest group used gift cards and reloadable cards such as Moneypak. The common theme? When you send money using those methods, it’s almost impossible to get it back. So the easiest way to avoid this scam: Never send money using a method that’s not reversible.
  • Money errands. Don’t agree to cash checks, mail packages or travel with goods for anyone you’ve never met.

Stick to PDA (public displays of affection). Emphasis on public. Sweetheart scammers work hard to isolate their marks from family and friends—who might spot red flags you don’t, and ask questions. If your new beau wants to separate you from your old life, be skeptical. Instead, tell your friends what’s going on. Let them be your voice of reason.

Catch a cheater. Even if you’re not ready to pay for a background check, you can check up on your love interest. Use a reverse-image search tool such as TinEye.com to see where else a profile photo appears online—discovering, say, that gorgeous picture of your new lover is really a photo of a model from South America. Text searches are even more effective, Baker says. Cut and paste any unusual phrases from your honey’s profiles or emails, and search for that string of text in Google. If you see that same phrase in a bunch of other posts, it’s a scam.

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