Federal agencies want you to beware of romance scams, which have become more common amid the coronavirus pandemic and are especially prevalent around Valentine’s Day, when people are looking for love online.
Romance scammers take advantage of people looking for companionship or romantic partners on dating sites, apps, chat rooms and social media with the goal of obtaining access to their financial or personal identifying information.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) believes the pandemic has made it easier for crooks to pull off these scams. People are socially distancing, which provides ample reason for them to look for relationships online and provides a swath of new excuses for scammers to put off meeting in person.
In fact, an FTC report released Wednesday shows more consumers than ever are falling for these scams and they’re losing more money.
Newly released data shows the amount consumers reported losing to romance scammers is up about 50% since 2019 and consumers reported losing a record $304 million to the scams in 2020. The median loss reported to the FTC is $2,500, more than 10 times higher than the median loss across all other frauds.
While scammers sometimes begin asking for money for things like medical emergencies, the FTC found consumers reporting the largest losses often said they believed the crook had actually sent them money. Many report these instances turned out to be elaborate money laundering schemes, such as for fraudulently obtained unemployment benefits.
The FBI believes scammers have likely conned people out of more money, but many victims are hesitant to report being taken advantage of due to embarrassment, shame or humiliation.
Tips to avoid falling victim to romance scams
The FBI says you should be careful what you post online because scammers can use that information against you. Officials also say to always assume con artists are trolling dating and social media sites.
If you do develop a romantic relationship with someone you meet online, the FBI says to consider the following:
- Scammers can use details shared on social media and dating sites to better understand and target you.
- Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the image, name, or details have been used elsewhere.
- Go slowly and ask lots of questions.
- Beware if the individual seems too perfect, or quickly asks you to communicate “offline.”
- Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family.
- Beware if the individual claims to be working and living far away, whether it’s on the other side of the country or overseas.
- Beware if the individual promises to meet in person, but then always cancels because of some emergency.
- Beware if you’re asked to send inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
- Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally.
- Never help anyone move money through your own account or someone else’s. You could become an unwitting money mule for the perpetrator helping to carry out other theft and fraud schemes.
If you suspect an online relationship is a scam, stop all contact immediately. If you’ve already sent money, the FBI says it’s important to report any transfer of funds to your financial institution and file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. You can also report fraud to the FTC.