Romance Fraud: Broken hearts, empty wallets

Love hurts, but it hurts more when you are being scammed – your heart is broken, and money is lost. There are millions of people who turn to online dating apps or social networking platforms to meet someone. Those who are lucky find their “perfect ones”, those who are not, get trapped by the scammers. According to FTC, $304 million were lost in 2020 to romance scams that is more than 50% from 2019.

The rising concern is, why the number doubled in 2020? An obvious answer may be the prevailing pandemic situation. COVID-19 has limited our options to interact with people therefore the only medium to communicate is via the internet. However, the increased online romance has caused many to fall for scammers who are seeking to steal money from innocent people.

This article aims to create awareness on the topic of romance fraud that has harmed millions of people. Additionally, with the increasing popularity of cryptocurrencies, fraudsters are targeting immature investors on daily basis. Therefore, the focus is to spot signs to protect yourself from becoming the victim of romance fraud.

What is romance fraud? 

A romance fraud or dating fraud is one of the most common types of cybercrime. Scammers meet the victim online and pretend to be interested romantically. Once the victim starts reciprocating the feelings, they take advantage of the goodwill and ask for money under pretenses. Or in most cases, they commit fraud against the victim by taking access to their bank accounts, passports, IDs, credit cards, pin codes, bitcoin wallets, email accounts, etc.

Initially, fraudsters do not ask for money or personal information, instead, they spend time with the victim to build trust. They are highly manipulative and use emotions to lure the victim to avoid raising alarm bells. These frauds are often inflicted by organized criminal groups, who work together to scam multiple people at a single time.

Why do so many people fall for ‘Romance Fraud’?

If we talk about the COVID times, living in isolation has affected many of us. The change from the normal to the “new normal” is challenging. People living alone have very few social interactions therefore they turn to online friendships. These kinds of people are the most vulnerable and easy targets for the fraudsters.

Imagine you are working from home, and there is a lockdown in your city. Everything is closed outside and the only reason you can go out is for groceries. Then you meet someone on a dating app and start talking. Before you were all alone and now you have someone to share your day with.

Isn’t this we all need? Someone to share our happiness and sorrows.

However, this is the most dangerous state where people get scammed because the person you met online could be a catfish or a scammer. In the United Kingdom, from August 2019 to August 2020, Action Fraud received 400 reports from victims of romance fraud, with the amount of an average of £10,000 per victim were scammed out.

Now if we talk outside the COVID situation, there are again thousands of people who use social networking sites or dating apps. As reported, three-in-ten adults in the United States have used an online dating app or site; 12% of them got married or committed to someone they met online (Pew Research Center, 2019). The number is increasing, and online dating is becoming extremely popular in certain groups – such as youngsters and LGB adults.

On one side, some people find online dating platforms easy and efficient as these sites expand options beyond traditional social circles. Others find them less flattering because of the exceeding scam rates.

We received a case in which a girl was scammed on a dating application. She told our team: “I met a guy who claimed to be a financial analyst and involved in trading online. He asked me if I am interested in making money like him, I was intrigued by the offer. It started with 300 CAD and later he asked me to invest 18000 USD in a trading platform. He pretended to be in love with me and we talked about marriage and kids. I invested approx. 15000 USD. Later, he asked me to withdraw money as it was the right time, and when I requested to withdraw, the trading platform refused and said I owe them instead. I realized later that I was scammed. “

From 2016 to 2020, the total amount lost to romance scams increased more than fourfold, and the cases reported are nearly tripled. Additionally, scams also topped the chart as crypto-related crimes by 54%. Find the full report here: Cryptocurrency Crime Report (2020)

Source: Federal Trade Commission 

COVID or not, people get scammed online daily and the increased use of technology has risen the numbers drastically as reported above. But how people really get scammed on a dating app or social networking sites?

How do romance scams work?

Dating fraud or romance fraud or romance scams all take place through dating apps and online dating websites. But in most cases, scammers use social networking sites or emails to contact victims. Also, many use phone calls as the first introduction. These types of scams are also called catfishing.

Typically, scammers create online fake profiles to lure the victim using the identities of people such as military staff, healthcare workers, or foreign working professionals. This helps them to appear trustworthy and reliable.

Our team consulted a girl who was scammed on a social networking site. She told us: “the guy claimed to be a health care worker in the military. He asked me to book his ticket so he could come and visit me. Apparently, he was stopped by the immigration and asked me for more money to help him out, he promised to return the money. He gave me a lawyer’s contact, and both scammed me. I was trying to help him out as I cared for him, but it got me in big trouble.”

It all starts with scammers showing strong interest in you for a short period. As time passes, they ask you to move on to a more private channel such as instant messages, email, phone, etc. They often claim to be from Canada or another foreign country but working or traveling abroad.

They share about a problem or something that is bothering them to appear vulnerable and to gain sympathy. This stage is referred to as the grooming phase. After this, the victim starts sending gifts or money to the fraudsters and continues to do so for weeks or several months. The scammer promises to pay back the money, but this never happens. Instead, they ask for more until the victim sees a red flag.

It just not impacts the victim financially but also leaves them devastated emotionally, feeling betrayed and fooled.

Signs to spot

  • Do not give away your personal details on a chatroom or website. This attracts fraudsters to contact you immediately by sending glamorous pictures of themselves to gain your trust.
  • They will always try to get personal with the conversation to get information out of you but will not share their details that you can verify.
  • Scammers will always appear as highly professional workers at the top ranks who are mostly out of the country for work. This is a ploy they use to not meet in person.
  • They will ask you to move from a legitimized dating app or site so that the chat cannot be monitored. Stick to the platform that you initially used and do not switch to email, phone, or text.
  • Fraudsters use stories to emotionally target you to get the money. They often claim to have an ill relative or have sickness themselves. They may not ask for the money directly but creates a scenario that forces you to offer help.
  • Sometimes they try to cover their criminal activities by sending valuable items such as laptops, tablets, mobile phones, asking you to resend somewhere else.
  • Often, they ask victims to receive money in their bank accounts and then request to transfer on some other accounts, or platforms such as MoneyGram, Western Union, etc. This is a tactic to launder money from one place to another and could trap you in committing a crime.

Protect Yourself

Do not agree on sending or receiving money from a person you have never met.

Ask lots of questions before rushing into an online relationship, know the person, not the profile.

Guard your privacy, no matter how caring or persistent they sound, do not give away your personal information.

Analyze the profile, check their name and details on the search engines before starting the conversation.

Lesser you share the better, and be wary of people who force you to give details about your whereabouts, family member names, personal pictures, etc.

Never buy or sell cryptocurrencies to people who approach you on dating sites or apps.

Be careful on video calls with an unknown person, the call could be recorded and used against you.

Evade fraud – do not invest your money in platforms you do not know about. Do your research and check if the trading company or investment firm is regulated or registered.

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      April 15, 2022

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