Romance scams were already on the rise before the current pandemic left us all quarantined in our homes with little to no social contact. Now that we are all more apt to feeling a little lonely, the scammers are up to their old tricks ad nauseam. With more people in social isolation than ever before, the target pool for potentially duped lovers has grown exponentially, and we can be sure there is someone ready to cash in.
Romance scams typically happen online and the targets are most often recently widowed or divorced individuals over the age of fifty. Victims can be either men or women, though women are at a slightly greater risk for being a target in these cases, probably because this scam relies largely on the manipulation of one’s emotions.
Romance scammers contact their victims through online dating websites or sometimes Facebook. They are looking for individuals who have expressed interest in finding a relationship, because that is exactly what they have to offer. These scammers craft elaborate fake aliases and profiles with pictures that are certainly not their own and that will be the most appealing to their targets. They may even have several fake profiles on different websites with the same alias to bolster their story, just in case their targets decide to check them out.
The classic romance scam now has a specific coronavirus twist that makes the ploy that much more believable given the times. COVID-19 is the perfect excuse scammers can now use to convince you they cannot meet in person. It primes potential victims for sympathy if, perhaps, they are playing an isolated, overworked healthcare professional (as opposed to the deployed military personnel in the classic scheme) just looking for a way to connect. Likewise, the pandemic is a perfectly plausible backstory for an out-of-work employee who just needs a little bit of cash to get by. No matter the twist, the scam is essentially the same.
The first step in the romance scam requires the fraudsters to build trust and learn as much as they can about their victims. They will quickly request to communicate outside of the avenue in which you met, either through personal email or text messaging. Once a rapport is established the scammer will profess his deep love for his victim. Next, they will explain why it is not possible to meet in person as noted above. Romance scammers are very attentive and keep in almost constant contact. They may even send small gifts such as flowers, as any good mate would do. These scammers will start by asking for a small favor in order to gauge whether the victim will be likely to help in the inevitable emergency that will occur in the future and require a much larger sum of money that they will request be sent by Western Union or Money Gram.
Romance scammers play a very long game. They invest a lot of time in their victims and often reap very large sums of loot for their persistence. The emotional devastation for victims of this scam is uniquely intense as it stems from a betrayal by their supposed true love. This, unfortunately, often leads to a deep sense of shame that can either lead to denial of the scam or at least refusal to report it. Remember, these con men are professionals and they are very good at their jobs. If you do think you are a victim of a romance scam it is important to remember you are not alone, far from it in fact, you are one in several thousand. If this is the case, stop all payments immediately and report it to your local police department and the Internet Crime Complaint Center at IC3.gov, as well as to any internet dating sites in which you met the scammer.
Romance scams also pose a risk of a continuing cycle of victimization. For instance, once the scammer is found to be a fraud they might contact the victim claiming to be law enforcement who can help get any lost money back for a fee. Another possibility is that the scammer admits to the initial ploy, but insists that they really did fall in love with you and simply continues the scam. Victims of the romance scam might re-visit a dating site after this failed relationship and match with another scammer who got their information from a “suckers list” of people who have previously fallen victim to a scam that scammers notoriously sell and trade with each other.
As a general rule, if you meet someone online who, for any reason, cannot meet you in person, be suspicious. Be very suspicious. This is almost a sure sign of fraud, so you should not send them any money or give them any personal or financial information. If you are unsure or have any question about corresponding with an unknown person online, please call us at 713-641-6141 with any questions before you relinquish any funds, or worse get your heart broken.
Melissa Ramsey is the BBB Education Foundation columnist. For more information, call 713-341-6141.