Online dating apps like Hinge and Tinder were already changing the way Americans connect romantically before the pandemic, when COVID-19 lockdowns led to a surge in their popularity. And it turns out that’s not just true for young singles.
According to a recent survey of 2,000 seniors ages 55 and older by the Choice Mutual Insurance Agency, 37% have dated within the past five years. Of those, 13% said they were most successful at meeting significant others using online dating sites or apps. The only other method that surpassed online dating was being introduced to significant others via mutual friends (18%).
Adults ages 60 and older are actually the fastest growing demographic when it comes to online dating, according to a study from Bowling Green State University.
But while an increasing number of seniors are finding love online, others are falling victim to so-called romance scams involving criminals who fake online relationships in order to swindle their unsuspecting love interests out of their retirement savings or confidential information.
The Chesterfield Observer recently interviewed Midlothian resident Shannon Freeman, director of programs and outreach with Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General, about romance scams – what they are, why seniors are often targeted and how to avoid becoming a victim.
Observer: What are the most common myths about seniors and dating?
Freeman: The biggest myth is probably that seniors have no interest in dating, that they’ve closed that chapter of their lives and moved beyond that. If the pandemic has taught us anything, [it] is that we all have a need for connection, and that doesn’t go away when someone becomes a senior. Another myth is that health issues preclude seniors from enjoying an active dating life, but … today’s senior is not just living longer, but also living healthier.
And then the other common myth I see is that seniors don’t have internet access or … they aren’t using [online dating] sites because they [aren’t] tech savvy, and that is certainly not the reality. What we know statistically is that about one in five adults between ages 55 and 64 report using an online dating site, [according to the Pew Research Center]. And 13% of adults 65 or older report using an online dating site.
Observer: What is a romance scam?
Freeman: Romance scams, also called Romeo scams, are when someone takes advantage of another person by feigning romantic interest. They can do this through creating false profiles on internet dating sites or … through social media like Facebook or Instagram.
What typically happens is the victim begins what they think is an actual relationship. Often this is a very intense whirlwind courtship, and the fraudster invests a lot of energy into romancing this person, revealing personal information to them, sharing deep, dark secrets, gaining their trust. It can be easy for the victim to get caught up in that.
Where we see this leading is ultimately to an ask for money. [The fraudster will share] a hard luck story, an emergency situation of some sort, a medical issue or a travel issue, and then asks the victim to send money or gift cards.
We can also see other kinds of fraudulent acts [including] gaining access to the victim’s bank account, credit cards, Social Security number and other personal identifying information, or pressuring the victim into investment opportunities.
What I like to emphasize is that it’s not overnight. It’s not someone sending me an email and saying, “I think you’re pretty. Will you send me $1,000?” There’s a lot of groundwork that this criminal lays for the victim, so lots of conversation, intense emails, text exchanges.
What you rarely see is the person meeting face-to-face with the victim, and there’s often a story as to why they can’t meet face-to-face. They say they are military affiliated, for instance, and they’re stationed overseas … or they’re out of the country.
Observer: How common is romance scamming?
Freeman: [In 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation] received approximately 24,000 romance scam or confidence fraud [i.e., creating a fake online identity to connect with victims] complaints. The financial losses totaled over half a billion dollars.
When you look at the ages involved, nearly 7,000 of them were individuals over the age of 60 [with a] financial loss totaling over $281 million.
My guess is that data is just scratching the surface because those are folks who reported [being scammed], and we know a lot of people suffer in silence … because of the embarrassment they feel.
Observer: Why do romance scammers target seniors?
Freeman: On the whole, they have more assets. They own their own homes. They may be receiving a pension or [other] retirement benefits. They’re more likely to have savings.
Also, seniors may be more socially isolated. They may have grown children who live out of the area. Certainly, as seniors age, their social circle gets smaller.
They also may be more trusting [because they grew] up in a time when their word was their bond, and they were able to take what folks say at face value.
Observer: What are some red flags to help identify romance scammers?
Freeman: The most obvious red flag is when someone asks for money. It is not normal or common to ask someone that you are newly dating for financial assistance.
As mentioned earlier, we see that whirlwind courtship. Scammers claim really quickly to be in love. They say things like, “I’ve never felt this way before.” They start talking about the future after [only] a few conversations. And that inability to meet in person. They may even set up potential dates that they have to cancel at the last minute.
Hard luck stories are very common, so a death in the family, a health issue, financial troubles. [They may say,] “I need money to keep my cellphone turned on, so I can continue talking and texting with you,” or “I can’t afford the plane ticket [to visit you]. If you send money, I’ll pay you back,” and then, of course, the trip ends up having to be canceled for some reason.
A lot of these scams … aren’t originating in the United States, so the [scammer who is] pretending to be from Virginia or wherever, may actually be living in Nigeria or another country. Because they have learned English as their second language … their writing may have a lot of spelling errors, poor grammar or a formality to it that points toward English not being their primary language.
Observer: Any tips to help seniors stay safe?
Freeman: First and foremost, anyone engaged in online dating should maintain a healthy sense of skepticism. We all know people can pretend to be anyone over the internet. People online are not always who they say they are … so paying attention and asking questions is really important.
People need to be very guarded with their personal information. Whether that’s a dating profile or social media profile, you want to avoid … talking about where you work, where you go to school, where your grandkids go to school, where you go to church. Also, be mindful [of the] things in your pictures that may identify who you are and where you live.
We also suggest that folks set up a separate email address to use for social media or online accounts that doesn’t have their full name connected to it.
For folks that are using online dating sites, they should stay on those platforms as long as possible. Sometimes scammers … connecting with someone on [an online dating] site will quickly say, “Hey, give me your personal email address, give me your phone number, so that we can email or text privately.”
The other suggestion I would put out there is that people are sometimes lulled by the false intimacy of emailing and texting. People may say things in that setting that they wouldn’t say face-to-face, and people just need to be mindful of that.
I certainly don’t want to paint a picture that all online dating is shady. It’s not – there are people that meet and develop meaningful relationships that way – but we just want folks to be safe.
Observer: Where should people report romance scams if they’ve fallen victim?
Freeman: If red flags arise, they [should] report that person’s profile to the online dating platform. They also want to reach out to local law enforcement as quickly as possible.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center … [has] an online complaint portal [at] IC3.gov.
Our office has a computer crime section, so folks can certainly reach out to our office as well [at 804-786-2071].
Observer: What about the emotional impact of romance scams?
Freeman: We talk about the financial loss that is associated with this type of crime, but we also cannot ignore the emotional loss that someone feels, because let’s be very clear: The victim in this situation is in love. They think this is a real relationship, a meaningful connection.
The fraudster … is really taking advantage of the vulnerability [and] maybe the loneliness of this person, and that can be devastating for the victim. [They may feel] ashamed that they fell for something like this, especially because in many instances, they may have family or friends who tried to talk them out of it, who may have [said], “I think something fishy may be going on here.”
We get a fair number of inquiries from adult children of victims who discover these [monetary] withdrawals from their [loved one’s bank] account.
Sometimes [victims] don’t come forward because they don’t recognize themselves as victims. They may still be holding out hope that this person who took them for a ride financially is coming back.
Observer: Any final thoughts?
Freeman: It’s important that everyone educate themselves about this type of fraudulent activity. Even if we don’t think we would ever fall for this, I want to make sure folks know enough about it to properly direct a friend who may be confiding in them about their new love interest.
The only way we can impact a crime like this is through education … and knowing what the tools of the con artist are, so we can combat them with knowledge and information. ¦
For a video presentation Shannon Freeman recently gave on the topic of safe online dating in cooperation with Chesterfield’s Council on Aging, visit chesterfield.gov/5027/council-on-aging-meetings.
This article appeared in print in Senior Life, a special section of the Chesterfield Observer.