Americans lost more than $1bn in 2021 alone to “romance scams” such as the one documented in the hit Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler, according to the FBI.
The majority of the victims who were cheated out of their money were women older than 40, and women who are widowed, divorced, elderly or disabled, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) said in a press statement last week.
Scammers often use poetry, flowers and other gifts to charm their victims, while keeping them concerned with stories of severe life circumstances, tragedies, death and injuries.
“The criminals spend hours honing their skills, relying on well-rehearsed scripts that have been used repeatedly and successfully, and sometimes keep journals on their victims to better understand how to manipulate and exploit them,” the FBI said.
“In some cases, victims may be recruited, unknowingly, to transfer illegally on behalf of others.”
In 2020, there were approximately 24,000 complaints filed to IC3 that were categorized as romance scams, nearly 4,300 more than the previous year. The estimated losses in 2020 totaled approximately $605m – though the real figure is likely to be higher, given many victims feel too embarrassed, ashamed or humiliated to report being taken advantage of.
Perhaps the most notable recent example of romance scams is the Tinder Swindler, the moniker given to the Israeli-born Simon Leviev, who pretended to be the son of a billionaire diamond dealer and defrauded unsuspecting women on dating apps of an estimated $10m.
“Most often these scammers leave victims financially and emotionally devastated. Many victims may not have the ability to recover from the financial loss,” said Luis Quesada, special agent in charge of the FBI El Paso division.
A study released last year by the cyber protection agency Malwarebytes revealed that people with less digital literacy are more prone to such scams. Those typically include ethnic minorities, women and older people, according to Malwarebytes.
The FBI has offered tips on how to protect yourself online against potential abusers, including researching the person’s photo and profile to see if their images or details have been used elsewhere, being judicious about how much personal information you post – a “good scammer can turn a tiny bit of detail into a very effective punch”, the agency said – and never helping anyone move money, lest you become an unwitting money mule.
“While we recognize that it may be embarrassing for victims to report this type of fraud, it’s important to do so, so that the FBI and our law enforcement partners can do everything in our power to ensure these online imposters are held accountable,” said Quesada.