RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — It’s an underground economy that rakes in almost a half-billion dollars, destroys people emotionally, and is almost impossible to stop. We’re talking about romance scams.
Not only will someone you know possibly fall for one, but your online profile can be stolen by these heartless criminals in an effort to defraud others.
You like to think you’re the one and only, but criminals are taking your image to defraud others in romance scams and they could create dozens of fake profiles all saying it’s “you” looking for love.
Since the start of the pandemic, law enforcement says over $300 million has been lost to romance scammers. However, only about 20 percent of victims report the crime, so the losses may be closer to $500 million or more.
Recently, a viewer wrote to Consumer Investigator Steve Sbraccia asking him to shed light on these scams.
She said her mother-in-law “is constantly falling for these online scams.”
The viewer said within a few days, the men tell her mother-in-law “how much they love her.”
But, that love has a price. The scammers want her mother-in-law “to start a bank account, send gift cards or put money in certain cards to keep talking.”
The viewer said she and her husband “have talked to her mother-in-law several times about this, but she just keeps doing it over and over again.”
“These guys, I’ve seen what they write,” said romance scammer victim Tom Ernsting. “They just flower them with attention and then go after the money.”
Four year ago, criminals started lifting Ernsting‘s modeling photos to create fake profiles to attract those looking for love. The “fake Tom’s” online have become a nightmare for him.
“It’s a constant barrage of people telling me I’ve been scammed, of people yelling at me for scamming them or of hearing people’s stories about how their money was taken,” he said.
Ernsting said he’s had to have dozens of fake accounts deleted on social media platforms and it troubles him his likeness is being used to cheat so many vulnerable people.
“It’s a weight on me that I can’t do more,” he said.
The pandemic caused romance scams to explode as people spent more time online in isolation looking for companionship.
WEB EXTRA: NC ex-Marine another victim of romance scammers
“People who lose money on average lose $16,000 a year,” said David McClellan. “However, only about 17to 20 percent of people actually report money being lost because they’re embarrassed.”
McClelland is with Social Catfish, a people search website focusing on online safety.
“These scammers are relentless,” said McClelland. “They know there’s extra stimulus money out there, extra unemployment money out there.”
They’ll try all kinds of ploys to worm their way into your heart, like offering chintzy gifts, all the while making false promises of love so they can drain your wallet.
“They’ll reach out to as many people as possible,” said McClelland.
How can you detect these scammers? First, don’t trust photos.
“I’ve seen my face photoshopped onto other people’s passports and driver’s licenses,” said Ernsting. “They’re really good.”
Since we knew Ernsting’s photos have been stolen, Sbraccia ran a reverse image check on one of his photos to demonstrate how insidious the scams are.
Sbraccia’s search resulted in scores of hits with Ernsting’s face, but who knew who is behind the fake posts.
“They’re making more money off my image than I make in a year, said Ernsting.
Other ways to protect yourself:
- Demand a video chat to see who is behind the posts
- Don’t send money no matter what sob story you’re told
- Take it slow / avoid snap decisions or commitments
You also need to report social media platforms when these scams occur, so authorities can hold them accountable for their actions.