St. Louis Consumer Fraud Task Force (CFTF) warns area consumers to be wary of romance scams during coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. With people isolated and turning to the internet to communicate because of the pandemic, scammers are working hard to take advantage of the health crisis.
Task Force members have received a steady stream of romance scam reports during the pandemic. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Consumer Sentinel Network received more than 12,000 romance scam reports during the first two quarters of 2020. Consumers reported more than $200 million in romance scam losses to the FTC in 2019.
Over 100 consumers filed romance scam reports to BBB ScamTracker this year, with some reporting thousands of dollars in losses.
As detailed in a 2018 Better Business Bureau (BBB) study on romance scams, scammers target lonely people who are looking to connect with someone. Once scammers gain the trust of their victim, they drain them of money. Fraudsters also may trick their victims into moving money from other scams, which could be a crime. This is detailed in a 2019 BBB study on money mules.
A Springfield, Missouri, woman reported to BBB that she lost $60,000 in a romance scam that ended in January 2020. She said she met a person through a social media network, who claimed to be living in Mexico.
“He told me that he was wanting to find a wife, someone to settle down with,” the woman wrote. “He was going to pay all my bills. His kids needed a Mom. I started sending him money.” The woman said she sent the man money for three years. She said the scam stopped when the man’s phone shut down.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri recently secured a conviction in a romance scam case investigated by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. According to court documents, Hammad Akande of Florissant, Missouri, will be sentenced this month after pleading guilty in June 2020 to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Akande admitted to defrauding a woman older than 60 out of more than $20,000.
The Task Force says consumers should be aware of several things to protect themselves and help their loved ones avoid romance scams:
- Keep your money. Never send money or gifts to a love interest you have not met in person. Scammers will ask for financial assistance through the use of gift cards, reload cards or wire transfers. Don’t fall for hard-luck stories of financial woes or emergency need for money.
- Do your homework. Most scammers steal photos from the Internet to use in their social media or dating website profiles. You can do a reverse image search through Google, which can show you whether the photo is being used on other sites. Ask the person specific questions about things that appear on their profile. A scammer may stumble over some details or make a story fit. Scammers also work from scripts, such as these examples.
- Stay with the program. If a person you have met through social media or a dating website wants to take the conversation to email or texts, it could be a red flag. If the person begins to talk about you trusting them, that is also a red flag.
- Make sure you see them. If the person is genuinely interested in you, they will meet you – either in person or via technology. There are a number of ways for people to have face-to-face conversations via technology. If the person makes excuses about why he or she can’t meet with you in person or via video chat, that is another warning sign of a scam.
- Report the bad actors. You can report romance scams to BBB ScamTracker, the FTC, FBI, local law enforcement and your state’s attorney general.
The Task Force, formed in October 2002, is a coalition of local, state and federal government agencies and nonprofit business and consumer groups in Missouri and Illinois that work together to protect consumer and donor rights and guard against fraud.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Task Force has met on a monthly basis to share information in an attempt to keep consumers safe.
The group has tackled predatory payday loan offers, tax scams, timeshare fraud, credit repair and foreclosure scams, bogus sweepstakes, internet sweetheart scams, phony grant scams, home remodeling, elder fraud, payment scams and a variety of other issues.