Dating websites, apps and social media have made it easier than ever to meet someone special online. While millions of people use these platforms to find love, scammers often lurk behind fake dating profiles to trick their victims into sending them money.
Romance scams have been on the rise throughout the pandemic, according to the Better Business Bureau, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2021, people reported a record $547 million in losses to romance scams to the FTC — up about 80% from reports the agency received in 2020.
As Valentine's Day approaches, here are some red flags to watch out for and ways to protect yourself against potential romance scams.
WHAT WE FOUND
How romance scams work
Romance scams typically happen when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a person’s affection and trust. The scammer then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate their victim into sending them money, according to the FBI.
“The scammer’s intention is to establish a relationship as quickly as possible, endear himself to the victim, and gain trust. Scammers may propose marriage and make plans to meet in person, but that will never happen. Eventually, they will ask for money,” the FBI says on its website.
Many romance scammers adjust their stories to what they think will work in each situation. For example, the FTC says these con artists often make up excuses to avoid meeting in person by saying they’re living or traveling outside the country, working on an oil rig, in the military, or working with an international organization.
“This makes it easier to avoid meeting in person—and more plausible when they ask for money for a medical emergency or unexpected legal fee,” the FBI says.
Some romance scammers may send private messages on dating apps asking to become someone’s “sugar momma” or “sugar daddy” and offer to pay their bills. Others may try to trick their victim into depositing money on a cryptocurrency trading platform. But these are both ways to trick unsuspecting victims to give away their cash, according to the BBB.
Here are five other romance scam red flags to look out for.
Red Flag #1: Too good to be true. Many romance scammers offer up good-looking photos and tales of financial success to trick people into falling in love before asking their victims to send money. If they seem “too perfect,” your alarm bells should ring.
Red Flag #2: In a hurry to get off the dating site or app. A lot of romance scammers will try very quickly to get you to move the conversation to email, messenger, or over the phone. If a love interest appears to be in a hurry to get off the dating app to an unsecure chat app, that is a red flag.
Red Flag #3: Moving fast. The con artists who carry out romance scams are experts at what they do and will seem genuine, caring and believable at first. Many scammers will begin speaking of a future together and will tell you they love you quickly or use overly flowery language to flatter you.
Red Flag #4: Poor spelling or grammar. If the person you are communicating with has poor spelling or grammar, or uses phrases that don’t make sense, that’s a sign that you could be talking to a scammer. This is a common telltale sign for other types of scams too.
Red Flag #5: Tugging at your heartstrings. Before moving on to ask you for money, the scammer may hint at financial troubles, like their heat being cut off or that their car was stolen. They may even share a sad story from their past, such as the death of their parents or spouse.
How to protect yourself from a romance scam
There are several ways to avoid falling victim to a romance scam. The BBB, FBI and AARP all share the following tips on how to protect yourself from being scammed:
- Never send money to someone you’ve never met in person. You should immediately cut off contact if someone starts asking you for personal information like a credit card, bank, or government ID number.
- Be careful what you post and make public online. Scammers can use details shared on social media and dating sites to better understand and target you.
- Do your research. Many scammers steal photos from the web to use in their fake dating profiles. You can do a reverse image lookup using a website like tineye.com or images.google.com to see if the photos are stolen from somewhere else.
- Be wary even if you’re the one who made contact first. Scammers flood dating websites with fake profiles and wait for victims to come to them. You should always ask specific questions about details found in a profile. A scammer may stumble over remembering details or making a story fit.
- Be very suspicious of requests to wire money or use a pre-paid debit card. These are scammers’ favorite ways to send payments because, like cash, once the money is gone, it can’t be recovered.
How to report a romance scam
If you suspect an online relationship is a scam, stop all communication with the person immediately. You should also notify the social media site or app where you met the scammer. If you paid a romance scammer with a gift card, wire transfer, credit or debit card, or cryptocurrency, the FTC says that you should contact the company or your bank right away.
“Tell them you paid a scammer and ask them to refund your money,” the FTC says.
To report a romance scam, you can file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov or go to the BBB Scam Tracker.