A military man on an international assignment or a medical doctor on an important overseas mission are just some of the identities scammers have used. But in recent years, it might be someone posing as a regular person stuck at home during a pandemic lockdown. But there are commons threads: the scam artists never meet the victim in person, they quickly profess their love and the conversation eventually turns to money.
Data compiled from the FTC, the Internet Crime Complaint Center, Better Business Bureau and American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) paints a bleak picture for Georgia, according to an analysis by Comparitech.
Among all online scams nationally, romance scams rank second based on the total amount of money swindled. Georgia residents lost an estimated $15.9 million in 2021 with more than 2,600 residents falling victim.
But those figures are likely underreported. Fewer than 3% of romance scam victims report the crime.
David McClellan, founder and CEO of Social Catfish, a California-based online dating and investigation service, confirmed that only one in three victims report being scammed. “Even though the numbers are staggering, they are underinflated,” he said. “The numbers we see every year tend to go up.”
Some of us make the incorrect assumption that these types of scams only occur among people over the age of 60, but McClellan set me straight. “Ages 35 and up is the biggest demographic that has lost the most amount of money, but over the last three years that has started to level out,” he said.
The fastest growing victims of online romance scams are Gen Zers. From 2017 to 2020, scam victims under age 20 grew by 156%, more than any other age group measured, including those over 60.
As a generation that has grown up with smartphones and iPads, Gen Zers are “overconfident on the internet,” McClellan said.
They trust online influencers and many of them want to be online celebrities, he said, so if they get a message from someone showing interest, they assume it is legit.
Another growing trend is cryptocurrency, with the median individual reported loss at $9,770 in 2021.
It used to be that romance scams mostly took place on dating sites or gaming apps where chatting with strangers is a requisite. But that changed a few years ago, McClellan said. Facebook, Google Hangouts and Instagram have since become the top platforms where users report being romance scammed.
The scammers tend to originate in countries with higher rates of the population living in poverty. Nigeria, China and India top the list, according to Social Catfish findings, which makes it difficult for U.S. courts to hold them accountable. The Department of Homeland Security has worked with the Department of Justice to develop a more coordinated enforcement and prosecution effort but by then it is already too late.
Anyone can fall for a romance scam. McClellan has heard from doctors, lawyers and teachers who have all been victimized in the past. Some get caught in the scams for months or years and lose thousands of dollars.
McClellan said they now use the term scamfishing to refer to individuals with malicious intent (catfishing is deceptive but doesn’t generally end with financial theft). Getting a handle on scamfishing comes down to education, he said. “We don’t learn about online safety. That is something that has to start changing. We have to start teaching people to protect themselves online.”
In the U.S., 76% of parents believe that online safety is something their children should be taught in school. Only 9% of parents believe it is their responsibility to teach children online safety. The bigger question is, who will teach adults, who comprise the bulk of victims, how to stay safe online?
McClellan said his network provides a range of tools that help consumers navigate the perils of online romance, but they aren’t doing anything that tech companies don’t already have the capacity to do. “The dating apps and social networks and websites have a responsibility to keep people safe,” he said. “They really need to start putting resources into this.”
It’s good to see criminals brought to justice, but we can do more to stop these crimes before they start.
Even though social media users can take some steps to secure their accounts, tech and social media companies need to implement proper safeguards on their platforms. And when they fall short, we need federal regulations that will hold them accountable.
Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.