February, the month that marks the Lunar New Year and includes noteworthy traditions like Groundhog Day and the Super Bowl, is perhaps best known for its association with love and affection. In previous blogs, we’ve covered the origin of Valentine’s Day, opens a new window and the history of St. Valentine, opens a new window, but today we are going to peer through February’s saccharine mystique to expose something far less sweet. No, not the emotional turmoil of being alone on Valentine’s Day – but we will look at another way in which love hurts: Scams!
A Look at Romance Scams
According to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network, the annual number of romance scam reports tripled while losses rose at least fourfold from 2016 to 2020, increasing from $75 million to $304 million during that time ("Romance Scams..." p. 1). The median cost per individual scammed was $2,100, which makes it one of costliest types of scam per person – behind only tax collection scams – according to the Better Business Bureau’s 2020 Scam Tracker Report (2020 BBB Scam Tracker, p. 40). Unlike tax collection scams, however, romance scams are considered far riskier due to how effective these tactics are on individuals.
And those tactics can be particularly heartbreaking. Like some employment scams that offer a fake front complete with shiny websites, a robust application process, and multiple interviews, romance scams are considered “high touch” scams. This means that scammers engage in a lot of contact with potential victims in order to sell the idea that what they say is genuine, whether it be their professional or romantic interest. Here is an excerpt from one testimonial:
“It has been over 2 years since my scam heartbreak. I not only had my heart broken but lost $25,000 of my savings. It all started when my husband of 25 years dumped me for a 20 year old Asian girl... I was contacted by a handsome 65-year-old man calling himself Jeff Thomas. He said he was an engineer and lived in Sydney but was willing to relocate as he was about to retire… He sent me photos of the bridge [he was supposedly working on], I was convinced this was real even though there were many red flags !!!” – “Story 2”
Avoiding the Scam
Here are some common red flags to help you steer clear while looking for love:
- Being contacted by someone who is currently far away
- Things move quickly and are too good to be true
- Always breaking promises to meet up in person
- If the person asks you for money to help fund some necessary expense (i.e., traveling, passport, medical, etc.)
- If they need a specific form of payment
- If the person offers to send you money for some reason
One common theory for why romance scams are increasing is the growing popularity of online dating services, and, of course, the coronavirus may have also bolstered that trend. With more people less likely to go out to meet people during a pandemic, folks are putting themselves out there through a myriad of popular dating apps. However, while “many people report losing money on romance scams that start on dating apps, even more say they are targeted on social media,” a potential scam encounter can start pretty much anywhere online, so it is important to be vigilant ("Romance Scams..." pg. 2).
Once you are aware of the red flags that people commonly report during romance scams, it will become easier to spot one. In general, scammers do their best to appear to be an authentic and trustworthy entity before revealing something that needs to be addressed quickly, which is when they will try to ramp up the pressure by being charming, threatening, or tugging at the victim’s heartstrings. Finally, one last tell-tale sign is if a scammer asks you to pay you in a specific way (money transfer and gift cards are two common examples) ("How to Avoid Scams"). The FTC recommends taking the following steps to avoid becoming a victim ("Romance Scams..." pg. 2):
- Reverse-image search, opens a new window a photo to see if the image truly belongs to the person
- Never send money to someone you met online, even if they sent you money first
- Ask someone you trust to give their perspective. Because of the nature of the scam, many people are willing to downplay potential red flags if it means finding love!
- Slow things down and ask plenty of clarifying questions.
If you have been scammed, contact your bank immediately to see about retrieving the funds. Be sure to report scams to the FTC and Better Business Bureau in order to help others from falling victim.
2020 BBB Scam Tracker Risk Report, BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust, 2021, p. 1-44.
“How to Avoid a Scam.” Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information, https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/how-avoid-scam, opens a new window. Accessed 18 January 2022.
“Romance Scams take record dollars in 2020.” Consumer Protection: Data Spotlight, February 2021, p.1-3. Accessed 7 December 2021.
RR. “Story 2.” Romance Scam Survivor, https://romancescamsurvivor.org/stories-from-victims/#story2, opens a new window. Accessed 20 January 2022.