As we all sat at home, often isolated, alone and worried about the future in 2020, con artists took advantage. And while many of us are familiar with the scams that try to steal our identity, another kind is growing at an alarming rate — romance scams where fraudsters try to steal our hearts and cash.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, consumers lost a record $304 million to romance scams in 2020. That’s up 50% from 2019 and a more than fourfold increase since 2016.
Sometimes these con artists find their targets through dating apps, but often it’s through Facebook, Instagram, or other social media platforms. There, they use fake pictures and create elaborate profiles to cultivate a virtual love connection. According to the FTC, they always have a reason why they can’t meet their supposed match in person.
Once their target has fallen for their story — and for them — they ask for money, usually through a wire transfer and, increasingly, in gift cards. According to the FTC, the use of gift cards to pay scammers was up nearly 70% compared to 2019. The median loss ends up being about $2,500 for victims, according to the FTC, which is more than 10 times higher than the median loss for all other scams.
While people were especially vulnerable during the pandemic, experts expect scams to only grow going forward. One survey from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners found that 90% of respondents expect an increase in fraud over the next year.
Here’s how to spot a romance scammer before you fall for their charms and requests for money.
According to the FTC, they often claim they can’t meet the new “love of their life” in person because they work on an oil rig, in the military, or as a doctor traveling with an international organization and need money for plane tickets, medical expenses, travel documents or customs fees.
They need cash quickly, so they tell their target that they must wire money immediately or send reload cards like MoneyPak or Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, or Steam gift cards, according to the FTC. These transactions are easy ways to get cash and remain anonymous in a way that’s difficult to reverse, the agency says. In other words, it’s harder to get your money back once you’ve figured out what happened.
And here’s how to avoid becoming the lovelorn victim of a romance scammer, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the FTC.
If something seems off or your new sweetheart’s story doesn’t seem plausible, ask questions and be skeptical. If they claim to be working on an oil rig, for example, search online for “oil rig scammer” to find out if those fake stories match up with what your new boyfriend is telling you, the FTC recommends. And conduct a reverse image search online to see if the photo of your attractive suitor is stolen from another site. If so, you’re the unwitting target of a romance scam.
Never share sensitive information, including credit card numbers or your Social Security number, with anyone you meet online. If they ask you to wire money or buy them gift cards, those are red flags that it’s time to stop communicating entirely with this scammer.
Bottom line, if a new love interest starts asking you for money, it’s bad news. Move on and get them out of your life. And if you or somebody you know is the target of a fraudster, be sure to report it to the FTC. Your action could prevent others from falling for the same scam.
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