The FBI has issued a warning for Americans to be wary of “confidence/romance scams,” after the Bureau saw a 70% annual rise in reported fraud, where dating sites were used to trick victims into sending money, purchasing items or even laundering or muling money for people met online. The shift from basic fraud to money laundering is a significant worry for U.S. law enforcement and represents a nasty twist in the age-old problem of romance scams.
In 2018, more than 18,000 complaints were received with losses totalling more than $362 million. And, to state the obvious, this is likely the tip of the iceberg. For every reported incident there will be others where victims don’t come forward.
In particular the FBI warns, threat actors “often use online dating sites to pose as U.S. citizens located in a foreign country, U.S. military members deployed overseas, or U.S. business owners seeking assistance with lucrative investments.”
These crimes can target all types of victims, but elderly women—especially those widowed—are especially vulnerable.
This news follows the U.S. Department of Defense warning about “online predators on dating sites claiming to be deployed active-duty soldiers.” The U.S. military says there are now “hundreds of claims each month from people who said they’ve been scammed on legitimate dating apps and social media sites—scammers have asked for money for fake service-related needs such as transportation, communications fees, processing and medical fees—even marriage.”
This warning relates to dating sites, but the use of Facebook as a means of executing the same types of romance scams has also become widespread. It was reported this month that even a U.S. congressman had been used by fraudsters to ensnare a victim.
The threat pattern is pretty straightforward. A compelling profile triggers an online discussion that starts innocently enough. But then the fraudster will start to spin a story, perhaps there isa medical or legal emergency, stolen wallets, a loss of employment—or perhaps a sick relative our a child that has gotten into trouble. Victims are asked for a loan or to pay an airfare. Perhaps the trickster is “visiting” overseas and needs an item purchased from the U.S., with funds send back in return.
The initial phase of the scam can last for days, weeks, even months. There can be significant numbers of messages and images exchanged. And by this time victims have bought into the potential of a relationship—they are extremely susceptible and guards have been dropped. One example given by the FBI is where a fraudster pretends to be a U.S. citizen living abroad who asks for money to come to the U.S. to meet the victim.
None of the above is especially new. Dating sites have proven rewarding hunting grounds for fraudsters. What is a new twist is the involvement of international criminal networks, using dating sites to recruit money mules or to encourage victims to set up bank accounts through which dirty money can be laundered.
The FBI warns that such grooming is intended to set up accounts “used to facilitate criminal activities for a short period of time. If the account is flagged by the financial institution, it may be closed and the actor will either direct the victim to open a new account or begin grooming a new victim.”
Unsurprisingly, the advice here is the same as for most cyber crime. Try to keep a level of cynicism and keep trusting natures in check. Images sent will of course be faked, captured from social media or other online sites. The FBI advises reverse image searches as a way to check—in reality, this is easier said than done. But if the fraudster cannot be found on social media, if the social media sites do not look genuine then take care. One good idea is to message them on a social media site and not only on the dating site or by WhatsApp or other messaging services.
“Most dating sites do not conduct criminal background checks,” the FBI advises, “do not ignore any facts which seem inconsistent… Never send money to someone you meet online, especially by wire transfer. Never provide credit card numbers or bank account information without verifying the recipient’s identity. Never share your Social Security number or other personally identifiable information.”
If you think you have been the victim of such a fraud, or if you are in the midst of an online engagement that might not be real, you can contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center or FBI at www.ic3.gov or www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field.