Romance Scams increased by 38% in 2020, according to data from banking trade body UK finance.
Here in Australia, it is the second leading type of scam, as can be seen by the following diagram (source: 2019 – Australian Competition & Consumer Commission)
However, in 2020, Australia lost $37.2 million to such scams, a growth of 30.06% compared to 2019.
In the US, reported losses for 2020 to romance scams reached a record $304 million, up about 50% from 2019.
But this is the tip of the iceberg. Many scams go unreported as the shame of falling victim is so tremendous, and the chance of getting the money back is so low.
It is reasonable to wonder: what happened in 2020 to make these dollars losses continue to spike?
An apparent reason may be the pandemic limiting our ability to meet in person.
But outside the pandemic, the share of people who have ever used an online dating site or app has also been rising, and romance scammers are primed to take advantage.
What Is A Romance Scam?
Scammers fabricate attractive online profiles on social media and dating websites to draw people in, often lifting pictures from the web and using made-up names.
Some go a step further and assume the identities of real people.
Once they make online contact, they make up reasons not to meet in person.
The pandemic has made that easier and inspired new twists to their stories, with many people reporting that their so-called suitor claimed to be unable to travel because of the pandemic.
Sooner or later, these scammers always ask for money.
They might say it’s for a phone card to keep chatting. Or they might claim it’s for a medical emergency, with COVID-19 often sprinkled into their tales of woe.
The stories are endless and can create a sense of urgency that pushes people to send money over and over again. Here are some examples:
Pay for a plane ticket or other travel expenses
Pay for surgery or other medical expenses
Pay customs fees to retrieve something
Pay off gambling debts
Pay for a visa or other official travel documents
Pay for hospital services
London: Several years after her husband died, Tina felt ready to move on with her life. Encouraged by her friends, she joined an online dating site for the over-50s and was approached by Andrew.
A handsome widower with silver hair and a broad smile, he said, had lost his wife at around the same time. They formed a close bond and were soon exchanging phone messages every day, swapping photos of their families and making plans to meet when he returned from working overseas.
The connection felt real, but the photos were stolen, used to create a fake profile. Tina was not only heartbroken but financially broken.
Throughout their online relationship, she’d been persuaded to lend “Andrew” more than £80,000 (US$111,300).
How does Romance Scam work?
Scammers exploit their victim’s emotions to take their money. They can be very elaborate hoaxes, sometimes taking years to develop and run by experienced criminal syndicates.
The scammer develops a strong “emotional” connection with the victim before asking for money to help cover costs associated with a supposed illness, injury, family crisis, travel costs, or to pursue a business or investment opportunity.
Scammers often approach their victims on legitimate dating websites before attempting to move the ‘relationship’ away from the safeguards that these sites put in place, communicating through other methods such as email, where they can more easily manipulate victims.
Scammers also target victims through social networking sites, where they ‘like’ them and then express shared interests based on personal information taken from the victim’s profile.
How can you tell if someone is scamming you?
Strong feelings: You meet someone online, and after just a few contacts, they profess strong feelings for you and ask to chat with you privately. If you met on a dating site, they will try and move you away from the site and communicate via chat or email.
Quick to love: Why would a person who’s never met you confess their undying love? Always give yourself time to vet any potential dating options.
Hard-to-understand messages: If you can’t have clear communication with someone, are you sure you want to invest time, money, or effort in them?
Gaining your trust: Often waiting weeks, months or even years to gain your confidence, they will ask for money, gifts or your bank account/credit card details.
Elaborate stories: Nothing seems to be simple. There’s always a complication followed by either a request for something (money, gifts, etc.) or an excuse for why they won’t see you in person.
How To Protect Yourself From Romance Scams?
So how can you play it safe while looking for love online? Here are some tips to help you steer clear of scammers:
Avoid any arrangement with a stranger that asks for up-front payment via money order, wire transfer, international funds transfer, pre-loaded card or electronic currency, like Bitcoin. It is rare to recover money sent this way.
Avoid travelling to a foreign country that you have no protection. If you are to meet, find a public and well-visited place.
Never share your personal information if you haven’t met them physically. Scammers can use your information and pictures to steal your identity or to target you with another scam.
Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers. Consider the possibility that the approach is a scam.
Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures. If they’re associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.
Take your time. If you don’t send money straight away, their messages and calls become more desperate, persistent or direct.
Do your due diligence. That is, find out who the person is. For example:
Search the type of job the person has. Validate their story.
Validate their profile on the internet dating website against their Facebook page and other social media sites.
Does their profile picture look different to their description of themselves?
Pay attention to what they say. For example, they may say that they are university educated and yet their English is poor.
Remember, Never Trust, But Verify!