Valentine’s Day offers couples in the U.S. the chance to unabashedly revel in their romantic happiness. You might spot posts from friends and family online, wherein they wax poetic about the incredible, amazing object of their affection. Or you might notice several individuals walking out of the grocery store with balloons and roses and chocolates, their head held high because—oh!—they are in love. You might find it hard to get a table at a restaurant because they’re all occupied by couples muttering sweet nothings to each other. It’s a great day to be alive and in love.
Of course, as those in the anti-fraud profession know, there’s a dark side to all this romantic fanfare. Online romance scammers tend to capitalize on the emotions and expectations surrounding Valentine’s Day to enact their nearly invisible, completely digital heists.
Internet crime has long been on the rise, and contemporary con artists have made millions by exploiting emotionally vulnerable victims. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), the victims of romance scams report the second highest collective financial losses in comparison to other online crimes. The IC3 reports that in the U.S. in 2017, romance scams, also referred to as confidence fraud, swindled more than 15,000 victims out of $211,382,989. In 2016, there was a similar amount of monetary loss, though the number of cases reported jumped by nearly 1,000 between 2016 and 2017. California, Florida, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania rank highest in number of victims.
FBI Special Agent Christine Beining, a financial fraud investigator, shed some light on the romance scam phenomenon in an FBI article. Beining said, “The Internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anybody you want to be. You can be anywhere in the world and victimize people. The perpetrators will reach out to a lot of people on various networking sites to find somebody who may be a good target. Then they use what the victims have on their profile pages and try to work those relationships and see which ones develop.”
Who makes a good target? Some victims are older, widowed or divorced and who have active, robust social media presences. Their relationship statuses, visible on their digital accounts, allow scammers to assume a certain level of emotional vulnerability and a desire for companionship. A large number of the scammers usually work in loosely connected networks of people. Special Agent Beining notes, “Once a victim becomes a victim, in that they send money, they will often be placed on what’s called a ‘sucker list.’ Their names and identities are shared with other criminals, and they may be targeted in the future.” Scammers have even been known to keep journals on their victims so they can more efficiently extort money out of them.
The criminals follow a model that generally achieves financial success. In this model, each scammer in a particular network will use the same story. For example, they could claim to be a U.S. citizen and to have lost their previous spouse from a form of cancer. They might say they work in the construction industry and are currently stationed on a project outside the U.S. This makes it easy to never meet up with their victims, and it gives them a reason to eventually and suddenly start asking for money. Then the scammers would invent some sort of construction-related accident and an urgent need for money to pay for hospital bills or unexpected legal fees. Though they promise to repay the loans, the victims never receive their reimbursement.
The popularity of the romance scam can be attributed to its relative ease. The scam doesn’t require any special equipment beyond a computer, and it’s difficult for investigators to trace the messages back to a specific person. In order to maintain your own digital and financial security from romance scams, the FBI suggests a few recommendations to protect your emotions and bank account:
Research the person’s profile and ask a lot of questions.
Beware of anyone who says he or she wants to meet in person but continuously comes up with an excuse not to.
Never send money to someone you haven’t met personally. “If you don’t know them, don’t send money,” Beining warns. “You will see what their true intentions are after that.”
If you suspect a romance scam, do not remain in touch with the individual. If you are, unfortunately, the victim of a scam, report it to the IC3 immediately.
Romance scammers pose a serious threat, but staying aware and alert online can help prevent depleted bank accounts and broken hearts.
To learn more about what makes someone susceptible to a romance scam, read “A whole lot of hanky-panky going on” from Fraud Magazine.