When Candace first met Eric on an online dating site, he seemed like a dream come true. After a rough divorce the year before, she was thrilled to meet a man who shared her religion, interests, and love of children and animals. Unfortunately, they couldn’t meet in person because he was studying overseas, but they talked and texted every day.
Then one day Eric called in a panic, saying his passport had been stolen. He needed money in a hurry or he’d be thrown out of the country just a few months shy of earning his degree. Candace wired him the small sum without hesitation – but when he contacted her a few weeks later saying he needed a much bigger sum to pay legal bills, she realized she was being scammed. Her whole relationship with Eric was a scheme to get money out of her.
This story is fictional, but the scenario is all too real. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), online romance or confidence scams are a fast-growing type of Internet crime. More than 14,500 Americans fell victim to this kind of scam in 2016, up from fewer than 6,000 in 2014. And that number may only represent a fraction of the real total. According to HuffPost, FBI agents believe roughly 85% of all romance scams are never reported because the victims are too embarrassed to come forward.
What Are Online Romance Scams
Online romance scams are a form of “catfishing” scam, in which a person creates a fake online identify. Some catfishers use these fake identities to annoy or harass others online, or just to flirt without commitment. But for romance scammers, it’s all about money. They lure their victims into an online relationship and use it to get money out of them – sometimes thousands of dollars.
1. How Romance Scammers Operate
Romance scammers work by setting up fake profiles on dating sites and social media. Sometimes, they use fake names and stock photos; in other cases, they steal real people’s names, images, and personal information. They usually claim to have jobs that keep them outside the country for long periods of time, such as working on an oil rig, serving in the military, or working for a nonprofit.
Next, they seek out victims – usually people who are lonely and vulnerable – and work to build up relationships with them. They can spend months winning over their victims with regular conversations, long e-mails, poetry, gifts, and declarations of love – everything except face-to-face meetings. Often, they rely on pre-written scripts that tell them exactly what to say at what point in the relationship. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported in 2016 on a woman who was sentenced to two years in prison for writing scripts for romance scams, including one in which the scammer claimed to be a widow whose husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Next, the scammers start asking for money. Often they’ll start out by asking for a small amount, such as a few extra dollars for a child’s birthday present. Once they know the victim is hooked, they pretend to go through some kind of crisis that requires a large amount of cash to fix, such as a robbery, a medical or legal problem, a frozen bank account, or a business opportunity. Often, they work with accomplices who pose as friends, doctors, lawyers, or other people who can back up their story.
Scammers typically ask their victims for money in a form that’s hard to trace, such as a prepaid card or a wire transfer. The victims are often happy to pay because they think helping out their love interest will make it easier for them to finally meet in person. Instead, the scammer continues to string the victim along with more requests for money, sometimes keeping up the fraud for years. When the victim finally wises up – or runs out of money – the scammer disappears.
In a few cases, the scam continues even after the victim catches on. The scammers admit that the romance started out as a con job, but claims that they’ve fallen in love with the victim. Then they use their emotional hold over the victim to lure them into helping them with their crimes – sometimes even turning them into accomplices in other scams.
2. Profile of a Scammer
Many romance scammers operate outside the United States. According to HuffPost, most of them are located in Ghana and Nigeria, but an increasing number originate in communities of West African immigrants in Canada, Malaysia, and Britain. Some of them are career criminals, but many are college students with low incomes looking for extra cash. In Nigeria, many of these fraudsters – known as “Yahoo boys” after the Internet portal Yahoo – have grown very rich, buying multiple houses, fancy cars, and expensive jewelry with the proceeds of their crimes.
To make this kind of money, romance scammers often have multiple victims on the hook at once. HuffPost cites a case in which a single person was working 25 online romance scams at once, posing as both men and women. Some of the most successful scammers have extracted tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single victim.
3. Profile of a Victim
Romance scams can affect anyone. Barb Sluppik, who runs the watchdog site RomanceScams.org, says in an interview with Consumer Reports that she’s worked with “men and women of all ages – doctors and lawyers, CEOs of companies, people from the entertainment industry – who you’d never think in a million years would fall for these scams but do.” Even celebrities aren’t immune, as the world learned in 2012 when Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o discovered he’d spent two years in an online relationship with a woman who never existed. However, some people are more likely to be targeted than others. Scammers’ favorite victims are:
- Women. Most victims of romance scams are women. Scammers prefer older women who are divorced or widowed, as they’re more likely to be emotionally vulnerable and insecure about dating.
- Residents of Developed Nations. Scammers find their victims all over the world. However, they tend to target people living in developed nations, who are more likely to have money to spare. Reporters at HuffPost spoke to scam victims in Australia, Brazil, Britain, China, Germany, Kenya, New Zealand, and the U.S.
- Professionally Successful People. It’s tempting to think that victims of romance scams must be dumb or naive, but studies show that’s not the case. A 2009 study at Britain’s University of Exeter found that, in general, victims of these scams are good decision-makers in most aspects of their lives and often have successful careers. However, in the area of relationships, they tend to be impulsive and open to persuasion from others.
- People Who Have Recently Suffered a Crisis. A Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study from 2013 found that people are more than two and a half times as likely to be victims of fraud if they’ve been through a “negative life event” in the past two years. Examples include job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one, or a medical crisis in the family. People who had been through a crisis are at an increased risk for all types of online scams, not just romance scams.
- Abuse Survivors. Psychologist Monica Whitty of Britain’s University of Leicester interviewed several romance scam victims and found that most of them had previously been through an abusive relationship. During this experience, they lived in denial, finding ways to excuse the abusive behavior or even blocking out all memory of it. Thus, they were more likely to turn a blind eye to the warning signs of a romance scam, coming up with excuses for the suspicious behavior like they had done in the past.
- Victims of Previous Scams. Romance scammers also like to prey on people who have been victimized before. You might think that being scammed once would make people more cautious in the future, but often, their response is just the opposite. The University of Exeter study found that people who have fallen for one scam are consistently more likely to show interest in another. It concluded that up to 20% of the U.K. population is naturally vulnerable to scams.
4. The Secondary Victims
The people who fall for romance scams aren’t the only victims. Scammers can also cause a lot of trouble for the people – usually men – whose images they steal to create their fake identities.
U.S. soldiers are particularly likely to be targeted, since being deployed overseas gives scammers a good excuse for not being able to meet their love interests in person. Also, the image of a strong soldier protecting his country tends to appeal to women seeking love online. Even high-ranking officers aren’t immune to this problem. HuffPost reports that General John F. Campbell had his image used in more than 700 fake profiles in the space of six months after assuming control of the U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.
Another target, Dr. Steve G. Jones, had not only his image but his entire identity stolen by scammers. For several years, he’s been receiving angry e-mails, Facebook messages, and sometimes even personal visits from women who claim he broke their hearts and took their money. Many of them refuse to believe he isn’t the man they fell in love with and have begged him to continue a relationship that never existed. Jones now runs an entire Facebook group dedicated to exposing scammers who have used his image to defraud women.
Dangers of Online Romance Scams
According to the FBI, Americans lost over $230 million to confidence fraud and romance scams in 2016. However, because so many of these crimes go unreported, this is probably only a fraction of the real total. Online romance scams can cost their victims thousands of dollars – sometimes even their entire life’s savings – and the chances of recovering any of it are very low. HuffPost reports that one notorious Nigerian scammer, Olayinka Ilumsa Sunmola, drove at least three women into bankruptcy and cost several more their jobs and their homes.
These devastating financial losses are far from the only dangers romance scams pose to their victims. Other hazards include:
- Aiding Other Crimes. Victims of romance scams often end up abetting the scammers in other crimes. Scammers may use their victims to launder stolen money, transport drugs or stolen goods, or even help them scam others. Sometimes, the victims don’t even realize they’re being used in this way. For instance, National reports the case of Sharon Armstrong, a New Zealand woman who was tricked into transporting drugs and spent two and a half years in an Argentinian prison. In other cases, the victims are so emotionally dependent on the scammers that they willingly enter into a life of crime to help them.
- Extortion. If scammers can’t trick or sweet-talk their victims into helping them commit crimes, they sometimes blackmail them instead. They obtain nude photos or videos of their victims and then threaten to release them publicly if the victims don’t help them. In other cases, they simply demand money from the victims in exchange for a promise to keep the photos private. Worse still, some scammers don’t even honor this promise. Sunmola extracted money from at least two of his victims by blackmail and then posted their nude photos online anyway.
- Physical Danger. Scammers living overseas sometimes lure their victims out of the country, where they can face all kinds of dangers. Some, like Armstrong, end up in foreign prisons, while others are kidnapped and held for ransom. Some even end up dead. Victims who realize they’re being scammed and go overseas to confront the criminals can end up facing the same dangers.
- Mental Health Problems. Victims of romance scams often develop severe depression and other mental health disorders once they learn they’ve been duped. A study in Criminology and Criminal Justice found that for most victims, the loss of a relationship they thought was genuine is more devastating than the financial loss. Many victims described the experience as traumatic, and most reported that friends and family showed little understanding or support. Some victims went into a state of denial, refusing to believe that the person they loved wasn’t real. HuffPost reports that some romance scam victims have attempted or committed suicide.
- Becoming a Repeat Target. Once romance scammers manage to get money out of a victim, they’ll often add that person’s name to a “sucker list” of people who are easy marks for online crime. They then sell those lists to other criminals, exposing their victims to additional scams.
Warning Signs of a Romance Scam
Part of what makes romance scams so upsetting for the victims is that they become emotionally attached to someone who doesn’t really exist. However, for people who know what to look for, there are often red flags that reveal something is amiss. Here are some warning signs that your online flame could be a scammer:
- They’re Too Good to Be True. Scammers go out of their way to make themselves appealing to their victims. They study their victims’ profiles to pick up on things that are important to them, such as religion or hobbies, and then claim to share those same passions. They pair their “perfect personalities” with attractive photos of strangers to make themselves seem all the more appealing.
- Their Profiles Are Scanty. Building a consistent fake identity from scratch is tricky, so many scammers keep their online profiles to a bare minimum. They contain only a few photos, and they aren’t linked to very many friends. The few friends they have are usually accomplices in the con – people you might hear from later when your new love starts asking for money.
- Their English Is Limited. Because most romance scammers operate in foreign countries, their English skills are often limited. They claim to be Americans, yet their messages are full of basic grammar mistakes that a native English speaker likely wouldn’t make.
- They Work Fast. Romance scammers try to move the online romance forward as fast as possible. They declare their love for the victim quickly, sometimes after just one or two conversations. They aim to make their victims emotionally dependent on them as quickly as possible, so they won’t risk losing them to a real-life romance before they have a chance to get money out of them. Sometimes, they’ll try to isolate their victims from other people they’re close to, such as friends or family, who might catch on to the scam and warn the victim.
- They Move the Conversation to Another Site. Although scammers typically meet their victims through dating sites or social media, they prefer not to pursue the relationship through these channels. Instead, they persuade their victims to communicate through e-mail or messaging apps. This makes it easier for them to keep their real identity hidden and also allows them to organize all their communications with their various victims. HuffPost reports that Viber, WhatsApp, and Kik are favorite apps for scammers.
- They Can’t Meet You in Person. Although your online sweetheart claims to love you desperately, they always have a reason why it’s impossible for you to meet in person. They usually claim to be living outside the country – traveling, working abroad, or stationed overseas as part of the military. Sometimes they’ll make plans to visit you, but then come up with a last-minute emergency that cuts the plan short. They aren’t even willing to engage in a live video chat, although they’ll sometimes send prerecorded videos of themselves (which are actually stolen).
- They Forget Important Details. Because online romance scammers often have multiple victims on the hook at once, they sometimes have trouble keeping all their stories straight. They can forget things you’ve told them about yourself or important events in your relationship.
- They Don’t Use Your Name. Sometimes, a scammer will even slip up and call one victim by another one’s name. To avoid this problem, many scammers avoid using their victims’ names at all. Instead, they stick to endearments like “honey” or “sweetie.”
- They Ask for Private Information. Scammers often ask their victims for intimate photos or videos, which they later use as blackmail. In other cases, they cut straight to the chase by asking for financial information, so they can clean out their victims’ account directly.
- They’re Always Having Emergencies. The biggest, brightest red flag of all is that your online lover keeps asking you for money to deal with one emergency or another. They have health problems, emergency travel expenses, losses from a robbery or other crime, family emergencies, and so on. The first time an online flame asks you for money, it should make you suspicious – but if it happens more than once, you’re almost certainly being conned.
Protect Yourself From Online Romance Scams
None of this means that finding love online is impossible; however, it pays to be careful. Scam artists can pop up on even the most reputable online dating and social media sites – and these sites can’t possibly screen everyone who signs up to make sure their profiles are genuine. So, if you want to make sure your new online crush is the real deal, you’ll have to do a bit of legwork yourself.
1. How to Avoid Being Scammed
Here are a few tips experts recommend to protect yourself when meeting people online:
- Check Out Their Story. When you first meet someone, do a little digging to see if they are who they claim to be. Run their name through a search engine and see what pops up. Their social media profiles and other online information should jive with what they’ve told you about their life. If you’re communicating with someone by e-mail, you can check out their address through RomanceScams.org, which maintains lists of email addresses that belong to known scammers.
- Do an Image Search. Check out the person’s profile photos as well. Copy the images and then run them through a reverse-image search engine, such as TinEye or Google Images. If you see the same photo posted with a different name or other information, there’s a good chance it was stolen from someone else’s profile.
- Take It Slow. Take your time getting to know someone you’ve met online. Ask lots of questions and learn as much as you can about them. Be suspicious of anyone who wants you to commit to a relationship quickly – that’s one of the warning signs of a scam.
- Meet in Real Life. Anyone who’s serious about your relationship should want to meet you in person. If you’ve been “together” for a few months but have never actually been in the same room, that’s a good sign your online sweetheart has something to hide. Be especially suspicious if you’ve tried to arrange a visit several times and the other person always comes up with an excuse at the last minute.
- Ask for Advice. If you’re feeling uncertain about an online relationship – especially if you’ve been asked for money – get a second opinion from someone you trust. Lay out the whole situation to a family member or friend and ask whether it seems suspicious to them. Make sure to choose someone who hasn’t already heard about your romance and isn’t emotionally invested in it.
- Don’t Share Intimate Photos. Never send intimate images, such as nude photos or sexual videos, to someone you’ve never met in real life. Those images you thought were private could be used to blackmail you later.
- Don’t Send Money. If an Internet flame asks you for money, it’s almost certainly a scam. Even if they promise to pay you back, you should assume you’ll never see the money again. If you’re absolutely determined to send the money anyway, protect yourself by getting a loan agreement in writing – which you should do anytime you lend money to friends or family. However, be aware that if the person on the other end really is a scammer using a false name, enforcing the agreement could be difficult or even impossible.
2. How to Avoid Being Used Indirectly in a Scam
It’s possible to be a victim of an online romance scam even if the scammer never approaches you directly. Personal photos and videos you post online could be stolen and used to scam others – especially if you’re a good-looking male.
Steve Jones, the New York man who had his image stolen for hundreds of fraudulent profiles, has posted a public service announcement on YouTube about how to protect yourself from this form of identity theft. He urges viewers to be cautious about accepting friend requests from people they don’t know. Check out their profiles to see how many friends they have, and especially how many friends they have in common with you. If you can’t figure out how they know you, don’t accept their requests, which would give them access to your personal images.
Another way to protect yourself is to run periodic reverse-image searches for your own photos. If you use Facebook, you can also instruct the site to turn on its facial recognition software to find photos of you and make sure they’re legitimate. If you find your image posted on someone else’s profile, you can report the fake profile to the site where you found it and demand to have it removed. Search online to find instructions for doing this on different dating and social media sites.
What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed
If you’ve lost money in a romance scam, your chances of getting it back it are slim. However, there are a few things you can do to improve the odds of recovering your cash, catching the criminal, and protecting yourself in the future:
- Try to Stop the Transfer. If you uncover the scam right after you’ve sent money, there’s a chance you can block the transaction if you act immediately. Contact your bank or the money-transfer service you used and ask if there’s a way to either stop or reverse the transfer of funds.
- Report the Crime. There are several ways to report online romance scams. Contact the local police and the online platform where the scammer found you. You can also file online complaints with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and the FTC Complaint Assistant. If any part of the scam took place by mail, report it as mail fraud to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The more of these channels you use, the better your chances are of catching the scammer. Even if you can’t get your money back, you could at least stop the person from abusing other victims in the future.
- Seek Counseling. Experts urge scam victims to seek out both financial and psychological counseling. Financial counseling helps you figure out how to recover from the monetary loss, while psychological counseling helps you recover from the heartbreak of learning that your online romance was a fraud. If you can’t afford counseling, check out the RSN Steps, a free eight-step recovery program provided by the anti-scam site Romance Scams Now. The site also operates the Scam Victim’s Support Groups page on Facebook, a place for victims to talk about their experiences without fear of being judged.
- Fight Back. Some victims of romance scams have made it their personal mission to stop scammers from striking again. Websites like RomanceScam.com and Romance Scams Now offer victims a way to report these crimes and expose the criminals’ fake identities. These sites also help educate people about romance scams and provide tools to check out people you meet online and see if they are who they claim to be.
If you’ve been trying to find love online – or if you were hoping that you already had – hearing about romance scams can be discouraging. The more you learn about them, the easier it is to suspect that anyone who expresses an interest in you online is just after your money. After a while, you may be tempted to delete all your online dating profiles, refuse any new friend requests, and stop trying to connect with new people online at all.
However, there’s no need to go to this kind of extreme. It makes sense to be cautious about people you meet online, but it’s also important to remember that most people aren’t scammers. If someone claims to be interested in you because you share common interests or ideals, there’s a good chance they mean exactly what they say.
As long as you take reasonable precautions, such as checking out a person’s backstory and arranging to meet in person, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing an online relationship. Romance scams are a fact of life – but so is true love.
Have you ever encountered an online romance scam?