Romance scams including fake online dating profiles and would-be “sugar mommas” are increasing as summer approaches, according to U.S. officials who have struggled to stop them.
As of Tuesday, the Better Business Bureau’s Online Scam Tracker showed that 395 romance scams had been reported in the U.S. since Jan. 1. The most recent was reported Sunday.
That was more than the 276 reports that the bureau received last year, itself a 13% increase from 2020, as “Cupid scams” soared during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are a lot of lonely people who are looking for companionship and who want to believe they’ve found a soul mate,” Judge Tanya Acker, a celebrity judge who has adjudicated romance scams on the CBS reality series “Hot Bench,” told The Washington Times in an email.
The FBI’s Houston office reported in February that romance scams cost Americans looking for love a record $1 billion in 2021, up from $600 million the year before. There are signs it could be worse this year.
Since law enforcement officials rarely recover money from the scammers, Judge Acker said, most victims end up seeking relief in small claims court.
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“They aren’t just being silly and naive,” Judge Acker said. “The villains who groom them have targeted and studied them and have invested time softening them up for the scam.”
Cybersecurity expert Vahid Behzadan, director of the Secure and Assured Intelligent Learning Lab, said it’s essential to take precautions because romance scams “imitate organic relationships in terms of their evolution and dynamics,” making them harder to detect than phishing links in emails.
Romance-related scams “are often long-term cons, and the scammers invest significant efforts in building the confidence and connection required for exploiting their victims,” Mr. Behzadan said.
“Moreover, the victims themselves are often too invested in the relationship to detect and report such scams until it is too late to prevent or prosecute” the fraud, he said.
The FBI said in a statement that most pandemic-era romance scams use social media messaging and emails to establish “a fraudulent relationship as quickly as possible, without ever meeting in person.”
“In this type of fraud, scammers target and take advantage of people looking for companionship or romantic partners and con them out of their money,” the FBI said.
The FBI said many scammers create fake identities with other people’s photos on social media apps or dating websites, build trust with flattery of lonely singles — especially seniors — and then steal their financial information or hit them up for requests for money, gifts and bogus investments.
Since romance scams are “intensely personal,” the FBI said, victims often wait too long to report them out of embarrassment or misplaced affection.
In a survey of the problem, the online news website Pew Stateline reported Thursday on the case of Jeanne Aikens, a widowed Boston Children’s Hospital nursing manager in her late 60s.
Ms. Aikens, who had cared for her husband through Parkinson’s disease, gave more than $200,000 to a man named “Logan” in several wire transfers after she met him on a dating website in 2018.
“I wasn’t worried about the funds because he always said he would pay it back. He always agreed,” Ms. Aikens told Pew in an interview.
“He asked me to send him a spreadsheet with an accounting of all of the funds. What was I to worry about? I sent him a spreadsheet.”
While “Logan” claimed to be short on money while traveling in the United Kingdom, Ms. Aikens ignored worried family members and bankers who questioned the transfers.
Targeting men, too
Women aren’t the only target of online romance fraud.
In Michigan, the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported Monday that a 63-year-old Garfield Township man lost $100,000 to a woman he met on social media after she claimed her disposable income was tied up with family in London.
The man met her once in person before reporting to police that she stole money out of his escrow account, the newspaper reported.
In a more colorful episode, the U.S. attorney’s office in the District of Utah reported last week that a 34-year-old Utah man was sentenced to 63 months in prison after posing as an American military general to swindle $8.4 million out of more than 350 divorced women.
Jeffersonking Anyanwu, a resident of the town of Orem, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering after creating a series of fake online profiles in which he posed as a 55- to 65-year-old military man.
The Better Business Bureau reported in February that some scammers pose as older “sugar mommas” who offer to pay young men’s bills for them. Others pose as “sugar daddies” for young women.
In all romance scams, the fraudsters get access to a target’s personal information and use it to drain their victims’ finances. The shift to more online dating during pandemic-induced shutdowns made the problem worse. Those new to the web and the online dating scene were particularly vulnerable.
“With COVID-19 restrictions limiting physical interactions with others, many have turned to online dating and social media over the past two years to find love and meet new people,” the BBB said in a Feb. 11 alert.
“Unfortunately, these platforms have not only made it easier than ever to meet new people and find dates, but have also made it easier to be scammed as well,” the alert added.
U.S. officials have tried in vain to slow the scams.
The New York State Assembly passed a bill this month to have banks warn consumers of possible scams when they set up electronic fund transfers from their accounts to other individuals.
Still, experts say Americans can more easily avoid the schemes by restricting online interactions.
The FBI said people should never send money electronically, reveal credit or banking information, or give their Social Security numbers to acquaintances they have dealt with only virtually. They should also limit what they share, ask lots of questions and research the person’s profile online.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story had the incorrect timeline when Pew Stateline published its report.