Spending

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

Sweetheart scams are on the rise. If you're not careful, they can leave you broke and brokenhearted.

Twenty/20

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 nonreversible 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.

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