Mason Wilder, CFE
ACFE Research Specialist
Like some spurned exes, romance fraud simply won’t go away. In early August, the FBI issued a warning about a 20% increase in reported romance fraud schemes and a 70% increase in financial damages related to confidence/romance fraud schemes in 2018 compared to 2017. Weeks later, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed charges against 80 members of an organized international criminal network composed primarily of Nigerians dedicated to romance fraud and several other cyber schemes. Even more recently, in early September, the DOJ announced the arrest of a New Jersey man for his involvement in a separate international criminal network that defrauded more than 30 victims in romance fraud schemes using fake online profiles of U.S. military personnel. The suspect allegedly carried out the scheme with help from co-conspirators in Ghana.
Many of these types of fraudsters feature common characteristics that anyone looking for love on the internet should know. If your online crush exhibits one or more of the following red flags of an online romance scam, you should probably ghost ’em.
If your online crush exhibits one or more of the following red flags of an online romance scam, you should probably ghost ’em.
1. They claim to be a U.S. soldier stationed abroad.
One of the most common romance fraud schemes in recent years involves impersonators using images of U.S. soldiers on fake profiles to approach victims and develop relationships before ultimately requesting some form of financial assistance. Sometimes these requests are for gift cards or prepaid debit cards, assistance with medical bills for family members, or funds to pay for international round-trip airfare for a first meeting with the victim. In the case involving the New Jersey man mentioned above, fraudsters pretending to be U.S. soldiers asked victims for wire transfers to help them ship home gold bars they’d received, recovered or been awarded in Syria.
A reverse image search is a quick verification method that people can easily employ to figure out if they’re possibly being targeted by a con artist. Search engines, such as Google and Bing, allow users to search the internet for an image (such as a profile picture). If a reverse image search turns up multiple profiles with different names that all share the same profile picture, chances are their intentions are less than sincere.
2. They keep putting off that phone call or video chat.
In most cases where a fraudster creates a fake profile to turn a courtship into cash, the scammer looks nothing like the pictures they’ve used to attract a victim. To delay this reveal as long as possible, they might continually reschedule phone calls or video chats, lest their liaison see or hear something that doesn’t match up with their fraudulent façade. Repeated excuses of emergencies that prevent a quick, live conversation should be a major red flag of a romance scam. There is no shortage of free or cheap means to conduct an international phone call or video chat (WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype and FaceTime, just to name a few), and anyone who can access the internet to send emails or direct messages should be able to give their newfound love interest a few minutes of time for some virtual flirtation. Recorded messages don’t count!
3. They ask if they can use your bank account to transfer funds internationally.
Even if you have developed feelings for someone you’ve been chatting with online, it’s never a good idea to give any internet acquaintance access to your bank accounts. They might promise you that you’ll get to keep a cut, tell you that very wealthy investors just need a U.S. bank account to get a promising new venture launched, or come up with a very convincing plea for the funds’ ultimate purpose of feeding starving, stray kittens they’ve sponsored for an orphanage. Don’t fall for it. You’ll likely end up with an emptied bank account and a call from the authorities about money laundering activities. This “money mule” variation of romance fraud might seem like less of a risk than purchasing and sending a gift card, but the damage could have serious financial and legal consequences that outlast your online fling.
4. You aren’t the only one who got that love note.
Criminal organizations that dedicate themselves to online romance frauds often operate using scripts and might recycle language on multiple victims. Many sites and organizations dedicated to exposing romance frauds, like Advocating Against Romance Scams, post messages from scammers that victims have shared. Try copying passages of text from messages and pasting it into a search engine. If there are results featuring the exact or very similar language, it doesn’t mean that what they said about you isn’t true, but it does probably mean you could do better.
Looking for love online is far more common than it ever has been. According to a recent study conducted by two sociologists from Stanford University and the University of New Mexico, about 39% of heterosexual couples and 65% of same-sex couples that met in 2017 met online. Don’t let the prospect of romance fraud dissuade you from checking out the online dating scene, but do be careful and make sure you are protecting yourself from these counterfeit cupids.
Interested in investigating and stopping romance scammers and other online fraudsters? Learn how to use online resources in your internal and external investigations to your best advantage at the upcoming Investigating on the Internet: Research Tools for Fraud Examiners event in Seattle, WA, where you will learn how to use the internet to find and follow leads, and make your fraud examinations more effective.