Over weeks or months you feel yourself growing closer. You make plans to meet in person, but for your new love something always comes up. Then you get an urgent request. There’s an emergency (a medical problem, perhaps, or a business crisis) and your online companion needs you to send money fast, typically via gift cards, prepaid debit cards or a wire transfer.
They’ll promise to pay it back, but that will never happen. Instead, they will keep asking for more until you realize it’s a scam and cut them off.
Phony suitors also seek marks on social media, reaching out to people they spot on Facebook or Instagram, and they are increasingly active. The number of complaints about romance scams fielded by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) leaped from 11,235 in 2016 to 52,593 in 2020, and reported losses topped $300 million, a nearly fourfold increase over the same period.
Romance scams can overlap with or evolve into other forms of fraud. For example, international criminal gangs use dating sites to recruit unwitting “money mules” to launder ill-gotten funds through their bank accounts or other means. In September 2021, the FBI reported a rising trend of sham sweethearts enticing their targets to make fraudulent cryptocurrency investments.
The older the target, the heavier the financial toll, according to the FTC — the median individual loss from a romance scam for people 70 and over was $9,475, compared to $2,500 across all age groups.