From Facebook to Tinder, older Americans increasingly targeted in love scams amid Covid-19 pandemic | #datingscams | #lovescams | #facebookscams

Do you know the cost of love? True love’s cost may be immeasurable, but the cost of romance scams totalled at least US$304 million in 2020.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg, says the Federal Trade Commission, because many victims of romance scams are embarrassed to come forward.

One woman who did, Kate Kleinert, a widower in Pennsylvania, told the Senate Special Committee on Ageing last month how she got caught up in a romance scam that cost her about US$39,000 – and her pride.

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After getting a friend request on Facebook in August 2020 from a man, Kleinert began corresponding with him on another app. “Tony” said he was working in Iraq on a contract with the United Nations and after he asked, she sent gift cards to him and his children.

He planned to meet her in Philadelphia in December but did not show up. Then someone purporting to be Tony’s lawyer called saying he needed US$20,000 for Tony’s bail. “The lawyer told me to do whatever I could – put a mortgage on my house, borrow it from someone in my family,” she testified. “I couldn’t do it.”

Eventually, “I was living off my credit cards and he was getting what I took from Social Security and my pension”, she said.

Scammers are very sophisticated. And no one should be embarrassed that this happened

Lawyer Patti Poss, FTC

Kleinert, who eventually learned the pictures sent by Tony were of a doctor in Spain, said she testified over frustration at an inability to get justice and “it’s so devastating and many people have been through this but not spoken about it”.

Romance scams continue to climb, and over the last three years people have reported losing more money on them than any other fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission. These scams, typically run on dating apps and over social media, increased among all age groups with losses of US$304 million, up about 50 per cent from 2019, the FTC says.

Age is just a number to romance scammers, who bilked older adults (aged 60 and up) out of more than US$139 million during 2020. That is 65 per cent more than in 2019, when reported losses were nearly US$84 million, finds Protecting Older Consumers, 2020-2021, A Report of the Federal Trade Commission, released earlier this week.

Among all scams the FTC tracks, romance scams made up the highest reported losses for those aged 60-79. And those aged 70 and older reported the highest median losses from romance scams: US$9,475.80.

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Opportunities for romance scammers have risen during the pandemic as older adults spent more time on social media.

“It doesn’t always mean they’re looking for love, it’s that they just report that the scammer starts with an unexpected friend request or a message,” said Patti Poss, a senior lawyer in the FTC’s consumer protection bureau.

“Scammers are very sophisticated. And no one should be embarrassed that this happened,” she said. “They know what they’re doing, to be able to tell these stories, develop a relationship and get people’s money. You may not think you’re sending something to a stranger because it is somebody that you think you know at that point.”

Romance scammers typically create fake profiles on dating sites and apps such as Ashley Madison, Grindr, Match and Tinder. They also target users on Instagram and Facebook, the US FTC says.

AARP even chronicled a case where a 75-year-old woman was conned out of about US$137,000 by a romance scammer she met on the Words With Friends game.

Some signs an online paramour isn’t all they propose to be include the claim that they live outside your country or are working on an oil rig, with the military, or are a doctor with an international organisation.

They want to get personal – to a point. A scammer will want to connect with a victim off the dating site, perhaps by email, phone or text. But they do not necessarily want to meet in person.

Scammers eventually ask for money. After they build trust with their potential victims – to do so they may connect online several times a day, the FTC says – they may ask for money to help with an emergency such as travel, medical care or other expenses.

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In payment, they may ask for money to be sent by wire transfer using Western Union or MoneyGram. Bank transfers and payments accounted for nearly one-third of reported romance scam losses by older adults at US$31 million, and romance scammers reportedly took another US$12 million in cryptocurrency.

Many romance fraud victims said scammers used the coronavirus pandemic to explain requests for money or their inability to meet in person, the FTC says. Older adults reported losses of US$10.5 million on romance scams related to Covid-19.

Cryptocurrency could come into play. The FBI has seen an increase in crimes where the romance scammer seeks to help you invest in or trade cryptocurrency.

Once signed up, the victim may be able to withdraw some funds, as a sign of trust. But as bigger investments are urged – often you have to act fast, they say – all communication might break off.

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